A cut on this woman’s little finger nearly killed her when she contracted a flesh-eating disease that caused her body to start shutting down.
In December 2017 Heather Harbottle, 49, from Hawaii, USA, woke up abruptly after a rough night with progressing hand pain.
The self-employed mum had just moved house and put the pain down to a cut on her finger that she probably got when she was unloading boxes.
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’.
Heather explained: “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.”
By the time she got to the hospital, she recalled: “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.”
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.
“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.”
She underwent a biopsy to treat the infected tissue and was prescribed numerous antibiotics which were working. 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.
Heather thought she would never see her little girl again while she was fighting for her life, 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.
She went on: “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.”
She added: “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.”