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How I Would Have Died: Bacterial Infection

Before Alexander Fleming discovered and tested antibiotics in 1928, the most likely way anyone was going to die was infection. We are a lovely environment for bacteria—in fact we cannot live without symbiotic bacteria working tirelessly in what we call our bodies. While beneficial bacteria keep us alive, bacteria gone wild can kill us.   

My left forearm itched last Thursday morning. I had what looked to be a swollen bug bite from a couple days earlier. By the time I got home from work at 10 p.m., the upper half of my forearm was red and swollen. The infected area seemed to spread while I watched. In June I had a MRSA (an antibiotic-resistant bacterial infection). Assuming the MRSA returned, the doctor on duty in the emergency room made a small incision, drained the swelling and sent me home with the antibiotic Bactrim—the best treatment for MRSA. The doctor, however, did not do a culture on the goo oozing from the wound.

On Saturday I visited my family doctor. The swelling was down somewhat.  He thought I would be better soon. The next morning my entire forearm and part of my upper arm was swollen to twice its normal size and bright red. Sunday morning I was back in the emergency room. The doctor switched me to Clindamycin and told me to soak the swollen area in hot water and let the wound drain. Still no culture.

Monday night, I saw my doctor again. He finally took a culture. By this time the swelling was going down. He said he believed now it was a staph infection, though would have to wait for the test results to return. While he was showing me how to properly squeeze pus out of my infected arm I told him about my idea for this post.

He laughed. In his opinion, my current infection would more likely have led to my arm being amputated, not death. But the MRSA infection this summer was on my right hip just below my waist line. "Nothing to amputate. That one could have killed you," he said. 

I asked about a racing accident four years ago in which I broke ten bones, including a smashed-in-pieces 7th cervical vertebra. "A hundred years ago you would have been dead for sure," he said, laughing again.

Thanks to antibiotics, I am typing this post with both hands. Nothing amputated. And more to come next week...

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