*WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT INCLUDED*
By Liana Jacob
A PAPER CUT on this woman’s PINKY FINGER nearly KILLED HER when she contracted a FLESH-EATING DISEASE that caused her body to SHUT DOWN.
In December 2017, self-employed independent paparazzi consultant, Heather Harbottle (49) from Hawaii, USA, woke up abruptly after a rough night with progressing hand pain.
She had just moved to a new house at the time and her family were unloading the boxes, when she noticed that her finger cut was infected and began to swell.
That night she had a fever and any movement of her hand was excruciating, so in the early hours of the next day, her family drove her to Hilo Medical Centre which took two and a half hours.
It turned out she contracted staphylococcus (staph), a group of bacteria, which spread into her blood and developed into sepsis. Due to her critical condition, her kidneys were failing, and the infection had already travelled to the heart. Her body was shutting down and her doctors diagnosed her with necrotising fasciitis (NF), commonly known as ‘flesh-eating bacteria’.
She was close to death and facing a possible amputation if the infection was too strong. The bacteria had already eaten its way through her tendons and had reached her armpit. She was heart-broken at the thought of being separated from her six-year-old daughter AnnJolie and this was her motivation to keep fighting.
She underwent a biopsy to treat the infected tissue and prescribed numerous antibiotics which were working. She had a debridement every three days, which is the removal of damaged tissue or foreign objects from a wound.
Once her skin was healthier, the next stage was to undergo a skin graft, however, the vac seal was compromised and caused the bacteria to spread up her forearm and an abscess developed. She had to be airlifted to a different hospital where she had another surgery on her forearm and ring finger, where the cut initially was. In January 2018, she had to have a groin flap procedure, where they take a chunk of healthy tissue and insert it to the top of her hand.
Soon after she was reunited with her daughter and has been recovering but is very grateful to be alive and wants to spread awareness of NF.
“On December 7, 2017, I woke after a rough night with progressing hand pain. My pinky was swollen and it was starting to spread,” Heather said.
“I was thinking it was a sprain or dislocation of my pinky. But between my pinky and ring finger was a cut so, I thought in the move I must have hit it or something.
“I stayed home to rest while everyone else made the four-hour round trip for another load during the move. The cut on my finger was already showing an infection and my hand was now beginning to swell.
“That night I had started having a fever and any movement of my arm or body was excruciating. I was so weak. So, on Friday at around 5am we drove the two-and-a-half-hour trip to Hilo Medical Centre.
“The infection was staph. It was already in my blood, so it was now sepsis. My kidneys were failing. The infection was already spreading to my elbow travelling to the heart.
“I was in such a state that my body was so ill and shutting down and the infection was so bad that after being wheeled into emergency I remember very little until I woke up in ICU.
“After being diagnosed with necrotising fasciitis, doctors were very extremely hesitant to touch it. The first step was to get every antibiotic on board and hope for results.
“I had just come close to death and was now facing possible amputation if the infection was too strong. The bacteria had already eaten through to my tendons and has now reached my armpit.
“At this point everything sets in. I’m in a serious situation and I’m far from being out of danger. Being strong was the only option. But emotionally and mentally I suffered.
“I left at 5am that morning leaving my sleeping six-year-old thinking I’d be right back. I never imagined we would be separated for sixty-five days. I was broken hearted but that was my motivation to fight through.”
Heather thought she would never see her little girl again while she was fighting for her life after the flesh-eating disease had attacked her body, but despite it all she has stayed strong throughout and was able to reunite with her.
While she is still in occupational therapy learning how to use her fingers again after her surgeries, she has learnt to adapt to a new normal life.
“The pain was beyond unbearable. I was on heavy doses of narcotics. The bandage changes every two to three days were excruciating. I fought through a patient’s advocate to demand to be put under because I just couldn’t handle it,” she said.
“Antibiotics and pain management were obvious. But what sped the process in healing was an amazing device called the Wound Vac.
“It’s a suction through a sponge that pulls the bad toxins out of the wound and regenerates healthy blood flow.
“I also received some health and wellness treatment. Medicine for depression and anxiety were given which helped immensely.
“They also had a visit with a pet therapy. That was such a treat after having felt so alone. Another favourite was massage and aromatherapy twice a week.
“Also, all the great food that kept me healthy and healing. Two follow up surgeries were required to debulk the graft as it was just a chunk of fat from my side.
“I’m still in occupational therapy and working hard to regain full use of my fingers again. It’s definitely something I’ve just adapted to but there is a lot I have a hard time doing.
“It’s the little things; scooping change, unscrewing things etc. I also acquired a frozen shoulder so just getting dressed or putting a hair bobble in is a struggle still. But you adapt and learn a different way.
“I’m so glad I’m in the days I prayed for in the moment; when I can look back and say it’s over. And to have my daughter in my arms and all my family. I’m truly lucky and blessed to be here.
“In the long term, I’m always very aware of what could happen as a result of something so minute. We also watch for any type of fever.
“If it wasn’t for the fever, I wouldn’t have questioned what was really going on and I wear gloves when doing any work especially outside.
“I’d say just try to find the positive joy out of each day. Let yourself off the hook for yesterday. Don’t worry about moulding tomorrow too perfectly and just be present in that twenty-four hours.
“As horrible as you have it in that moment someone else has it worse than you. Be thankful for what is.”