By Alyce Collins
THIS WOMAN had FOUR breast reconstructions after contracting SEPSIS in her left breast that almost took her LIFE after DOCTORS wrote it off as inflammation from a ‘plastic-surgery problem.’
Cocktail waitress Nikki Belza (35) from New York City, now living in Las Vegas, USA, has undergone her fourth breast reconstructive surgery in the last two years this week after she was wrongfully turned away by hospital staff who diagnosed the tenderness in her breast as mastitis.
After waking up with a tenderness in her left breast in 2016, Nikki wrote the problem off as a pulled muscle or having slept funny in the night. However, her health began to decline throughout the day as she later collapsed at work as a result of the unbearable pain.
Without hesitation, Nikki’s husband, CJ, drove her to the hospital to be looked over. Doctors didn’t carry out a thorough inspection of Nikki’s case and instead sent her home with just painkillers for what they believed was simply inflammation related to her breast implant.
With her fever rising to over 40 degrees Celsius, CJ called Nikki’s plastic surgeon, who was out of town, to express his fears for Nikki’s deteriorating condition. Nikki’s surgeon flew back the following morning as he knew immediately that it was a grave situation.
Blood tests soon revealed Nikki was in septic shock after her white blood cell count returned as 44,000, whereas the average count is close to 4,000. Due to the severity of Nikki’s condition, her surgeon said that unless she had her left breast removed, she had a 50 per cent chance of dying from sepsis.
Nikki had contracted sepsis from a strep infection in her breast pocket, which ultimately spread into her blood. Since 2016, Nikki has undergone four corrective breast surgeries to repair the nerve damage and scar tissue she was left with, and to gain closure on a time that is still difficult for Nikki to come to terms with.
“Being a cocktail waitress, we tend to do a significant amount of lifting and vigorous movements every day,” said Nikki.
“I woke up to get ready for work and had mild tenderness in my left breast, as if I’d slept in an awkward position, so I wasn’t overly concerned.
“I arrived at work and started setting up the club, but my minor pain started to escalate. I still wasn’t too worried because I only felt like I’d sprained a muscle.
“Within an hour of my shift starting, it quickly became unbearable. My husband works at the same club and started later than me, so he was going to bring me an anti-inflammatory pill. But my pain skyrocketed for what seemed like no reason.
“I basically collapsed in the corner in pain because I could no longer stand. CJ realised this wasn’t a sprained muscle, so he phoned my surgeon but unfortunately, he was out of town, so he told us to go to the hospital.
“When we arrived at hospital, I was still in my revealing cocktail waitress uniform of a corset and fishnet stockings because I was in too much pain to change clothing.
“The initial visit wasn’t helpful because they gave me painkillers and told me it seemed like a plastic surgery problem which they wrote off as inflammation and sent me home. That move almost took my life.
“With sepsis being a medical emergency, every second counts. But there was no sepsis protocol, so they didn’t assume I had an infection despite my husband and I trying to refuse painkillers and suggesting I might need antibiotics instead.
“After being sent home my health quickly declined. My fever was rising above 40 degrees, I had unbearable pain like I was going to die, pale and sweaty skin, extreme thirst, I was shivering and confused.
“My husband called my surgeon at 4am and he was appalled that I’d been released without any tests, so he asked me to come into the office the next morning as he was flying back to Vegas.
“After the blood tests, he said my white blood cell results were astronomical and I needed to get to hospital straight away. I was in septic shock, so the infection was taking over my body and killing me.
“My surgeon and an infectious disease specialist gave me two choices: have surgery to remove the breast or wait it out on an IV with antibiotics. With my symptoms, there was a higher than 50 per cent chance that I would have died so surgery was my only option.
“We all decided that removing one implant with all the breast tissue would be the safest and quickest option, and it would keep the infection from infecting my other side as well. So, I spent the next five days in ICU being treated.”
The fear from having sepsis has left Nikki with mental scars as well as her physical surgery scars and weakened health.
For four months after the surgery, Nikki lived with just one breast which she admits was very difficult to come to terms with. Nikki’s most recent surgery was on December 5, 2018 which she hopes will be the final surgery she needs to have.
Now, Nikki hopes to make more people aware of their own health and to raise awareness for sepsis, about which so little is still known.
“Surviving sepsis made me mentally stronger than I ever thought I was,” said Nikki.
“There was nothing I could do to prevent my situation as I showed no signs or symptoms of infection until it was much too late.
“Sepsis has physically impacted me in the sense that I spent four months with one breast, which is very hard in the city I live in. Vegas is all about glam and appearance. I was very weak and had to stop working for a long time.
“I still have many lasting effects from the whole experience, including post sepsis syndrome which made my hair turn almost completely grey, shakiness, a low immune system and an inability to regulate temperature. I’m always freezing or uncomfortably hot.
“The procedure I had most recently on December 5, 2018, should be my final procedure. My surgeon tightened my permanent sutures, removed some painful scar tissue and made things symmetrical again.
“People sometimes don’t realise that besides your health, after going through such an illness, mastectomy patients feel like they’ve had closure when things go back to how they once were.
“I wish I’d have had earlier symptoms to avoid what I went through, but hopefully my story will help people become aware that although my situation was unusual, sepsis is very common, and it can arise from any infection.
“My infection wasn’t from having breast implants like some said, my sepsis originated from a strep infection which was in my entire breast pocket and spread into my blood.
“Losing my breast temporarily may have saved me because sepsis is known to spread so rampantly in your blood. It could have infected nearby organs like my heart and my lungs.
“My message would be to always be aware of your body and health. If something hurts, then pay attention because your body is telling you something.”
You can follow Nikki’s journey to recovery by visiting nikkibelzano.