MRSA - The Superbug

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In 2007, life was good for Tanya, a 30-something chef who loved to hike, swim and ski. "I felt like I was on a roll," she says. "Like I was going places."

Professionally, Tanya was doing what she loved as a chef for an Idaho catering company. Personally, she had found love. She and her boyfriend, Neil, were talking about marriage.

Then, in an instant, everything changed. On March 19, 2007, Tanya was chopping celery at work when her knife slipped and cut her finger. Since the wound wasn't much deeper than a paper cut, Tanya says she thought nothing of it. "I cleaned it up with alcohol wipes, and I put a Band-Aid on it," she says. "I put two gloves on, cleaned up my area and went back to work."

A few hours later, Tanya says she pulled her right shoulder while lifting a heavy pot of potatoes off the stove. She felt a sharp pain but attributed it to muscle strain. "I just continued working," she says. "About eight, nine hours later, I just felt really tired."

When the pain in her shoulder worsened, Tanya went to the hospital to get it checked out. Doctors gave her pain pills, put her arm in a sling and sent her home to rest.

Later that night, Tanya's teeth started chattering, and her temperature skyrocketed to 105. She says she knew something was wrong…but never imagined it all stemmed from the small cut on her finger.

Little did Tanya know, a rare type of bacteria had gotten into the cut and was moving quickly through her body, eating away at her flesh.

Within 60 hours of cutting her finger, Tanya was fighting for her life. She had contracted necrotizing fasciitis—commonly called flesh-eating bacteria—and had to be airlifted to a larger hospital for emergency surgery. "I technically went from being fine to being on my deathbed," she says.

When Tanya arrived at the trauma center, a team of nine doctors worked furiously to save her life. Doctors say they watched in horror as the deadly bacteria jumped from her arm into her chest…right before their eyes.

Doctors began by amputating Tanya's arm and right shoulder but then realized it had spread into her right breast. "They had to keep cutting because that's the only way to get rid of it," she says. The surgeons decided to do a full right mastectomy. "It was the only way it was going to save my life," she says.

Today, the scar on Tanya's upper body reminds her that she's lucky to be alive. Since doctors had to remove almost 9 pounds of flesh and muscle to rid her body of the bacteria, Tanya is left with nothing more than a thin layer of skin to protect her rib cage and right lung. "It's very fragile," she says. "Even a pinprick could go right into my lung or something, and I could die."

How did a small cut do so much damage in less than three days? Dr. Oz says necrotizing fasciitis burrows into the muscle and liquefies the surrounding tissue. "That's why it's called the flesh-eating bacteria—because it literally takes away the inside of your body," Dr. Oz says. "On the outside when you look at it, it doesn't look any different."

As the bacteria eat away at a person's flesh, Dr. Oz says toxins are released, which can destroy the lungs and kidneys and cause the body to shut down.

Dr. Oz says the most common cause of this flesh-eating bacteria is streptococcus, the strain that causes strep throat.

Tanya's medical nightmare may have stemmed from a co-worker who brought strep into the kitchen.

"They [may have] coughed on you. They sneezed, [and] it got on the knife," Dr. Oz says. "The knife cuts a little deeper than usual, so now the bacteria has a way of getting down into the muscle."

Unfortunately, Dr. Oz says 75 percent of people who are infected with this rare bacteria don't survive to tell their stories. To prevent this from happening, Dr. Oz encourages you to be assertive with your doctors and do what your mother taught you…wash your hands! "It's the most fundamental message," he says.

Most people have never heard of this deadly germ, but Dr. Oz says medical experts have been worried about it for years.

Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus—MRSA for short—is a rapidly spreading strain of deadly bacteria that's become resistant to commonly prescribed antibiotics. This superbug affects millions of people, and according to the Centers for Disease Control, kills 19,000 Americans each year, which is higher than the death toll for AIDS.

Symptoms include warm and tender skin, sores, boils, draining puss, redness, swelling and high fever. "If left untreated, it can destroy muscle tissue and lead to life-threatening infections in bones and vital organs," Dr. Oz says.

Over the years, Dr. Oz says MRSA has traditionally been found in hospitals, but now, you can contract it in homes, schools, locker rooms and health clubs.

"The number of us who have MRSA living on our skin already, which earlier in this decade was maybe 1 percent at most, is now at least 10 times higher than that," Dr. Oz says.

Athletes are at higher risk than most. Since 2006, 33 professional football players have been infected by MRSA.

"This thing really gets the attention of medicine because this is a kind of bacteria that we can't kill anymore," Dr. Oz says. "It's outsmarted us, and it keeps ahead of us."

In March 2009, MRSA made headlines in Tennessee when Kristen, a healthy 11-year-old girl, became infected.

One day, Amanda, Kristen's mom, says her daughter came home from school with an extremely sore throat. Her dad, Scott, took her to see a doctor. "They said it was a virus," Amanda says. "A lot of things were going around in school, and they sent her home with a strong antibiotic."

Two days later, Kristen's health began to deteriorate. She had trouble breathing and complained of severe back pain. Doctors X-rayed her lungs and then rushed her to the pediatric intensive care unit at a nearby hospital. MRSA had invaded and ravaged Kristen's lungs, leaving her in critical condition.

Ten days after she complained of a sore throat, Kristen died from MRSA. "I was there when she was born, and I was there when her heart stopped beating," Amanda says. "[I told] her how much I love her and how proud I was of her."

Kristen's father was so devastated by her death, he didn't attend the funeral. He did, however, write her a goodbye letter, which was read during the services. The letter says: "Daddy was unable to make it today because this was more than he could bear. … I love you, baby girl."

Dr. Oz says MRSA is deadly because it burrows into the skin and gets into the bloodstream. "It poisons the blood," he says. "Then, it starts to destroy the lungs, which is what happened to that beautiful little girl."

No matter how often you wash and sanitize, Dr. Oz says you can't get rid of all the bacteria growing on your skin. "Staph grows everywhere," he says. "It's in your armpits and all the folds."

Before you start scrubbing, remember that some types of bacteria are the "good guys" there to protect us from "bad guys" like MRSA.

If you're prescribed the wrong antibiotics to treat a bacterial infection, Dr. Oz says the good bacteria are killed, while MRSA lives on and begins to reproduce. "That cell loves it because it's not being killed," Dr. Oz says. "It starts to make the other cells around it become resistant to the other antibiotics that doctors like me would give."

In some cases, Dr. Oz says a MRSA patient may need a combination of two or three antibiotics to kill the strain. "If you're given the wrong pill, it doesn't matter if you're taking it," he says. "It's like you're not taking anything at all."

Thanks to recent medical breakthroughs, people can now be tested more quickly for MRSA. "This is big, big, big news," Dr. Oz says. "In two hours, everyone can figure out if they have MRSA. It's going out to all the hospitals right now."

To avoid it completely, Dr. Oz says there are simple steps you can take to stay healthy, like washing your hands and cleaning thoroughly with bleach solutions.

If you're checking into the hospital or heading to the gym, find other ways to protect yourself.

This is old news to one well-known athlete who's been raising MRSA awareness since 2003. Grant Hill, an NBA all-star, contracted the bacteria after ankle surgery six years ago.

Grant says his body went into shock four days after his surgery and he had to be rushed to the emergency room. "I had a temperature of about 105," he says. "From my knee down, my whole leg was black and red."

After a few tests, doctors determined Grant had MRSA and began aggressive antibiotic treatment. Until that day, Grant says he'd never heard of this superbug. "Since then, I've heard of it, and I've heard a lot of stories. There are a lot of examples in professional sports and in the NFL," he says. "Thankfully, in the last few years … they've done a better job of making the players aware and trying to do what they can to prevent it."

Grant is just one of more than 90,000 Americans who get MRSA every year, and he says he was lucky to beat it. "Not everyone is as lucky as I was," he says.

Now, he's healthy and back on the basketball court, but Grant says he'll never forget this health scare. "I've had surgeries before. You go in, you get healed, you come back…but this scared me," he says. "I could have died. I could have lost my leg. Thankfully, I'm one of the lucky ones."