I got MRSA during the winter break of my senior year of college. My first outbreak lasted six months and was all below the belt. I had it on my genitals, along my ass, and down my legs.
MRSA is a kind of staph infection that’s resistant to antibiotics. In a lot of cases, people with chronic MRSA have thought their infection was a spider bite or a scratch that was a little infected, but then it turned into a very painful abscess and they had to go to the hospital, or it got out of control.
At first, I freaked out and thought it might be herpes. That would have surprised me, but I just didn’t know what else would show red sores in those areas.
Two doctors misdiagnosed me for the first month. During winter break, I saw a dermatologist and a gynecologist, and they both said it was something like infected ingrown hairs; they didn’t give me an actual answer. Something was wrong, but I didn’t know what. The infection wasn’t getting diagnosed or dealt with properly, and I felt shame because of where it was on my body.
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When I flew back to San Diego from Long Island for my last semester, I went to the health center and I basically said, “I think I have staph infection.” I looked at pictures online and it looked like staph. That was when I got the correct diagnosis. The doctor took one look at it and said, “Yes, this is 100 percent staph.”
When she diagnosed me, she said, “It would make sense if you played a sport. It would make sense if you were in the hospital recently. But you really could have gotten it from anything.” That’s one of the scariest parts to me: I really don’t know where I got it from at all.
During that outbreak, I didn’t feel like I had any support system. No one was on top of it. I was on the other side of the country away from my family and I didn’t have a car at school, so I was restricted to going to the health center on my campus. They were good, but it was not an issue that they dealt with regularly. I had no idea what was going on, and I was alone. My parents didn’t know what it was, and they could only talk to me about it over the phone. It was six months of seeing random doctors at the health center and not feeling like it was being taken care of.
I did a lot of research, but there’s so much that conflicts. There are people who say you should just take antibiotics, but at some point, they don’t work anymore, and that’s the problem. That’s why MRSA is such a big deal.
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When the doctor correctly identified it as MRSA, she put me on the correct antibiotics and it went away, but it came back two weeks later. It happened cyclically like that for about two months. I had these really painful abscesses all over to the point where it was very uncomfortable to sit, walk, or really do anything. In hindsight, I should have taken a leave of absence because it was my last semester of college and I was very stressed, but I didn’t. That probably compounded it and weakened my immune system.
The doctors couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t nipping it in the bud, and it kept coming back. I was very hygienic. I did my laundry every other day. I wiped down any surface that I used right after I used it. I lived with three other girls and no one contracted it. None of my friends contracted it: I was very anal retentive about keeping clean and being proactive about preventing it, yet it kept coming back.
It got to me mentally. I was severely depressed the entire time I had the first infection, and I didn’t even realize it because my whole outlook was clouded by the physical pain I was experiencing. MRSA is psychologically crippling, especially if you’re someone who’s prone to anxiety. There are a lot of horror stories, and the infection can get bad quickly, so there was an ever-present anxiety for me of wondering, what if this gets really bad? What if I get sepsis? What if the hospital can’t treat me?
I still had the infection when I graduated in May of 2016. During my graduation ceremony, I was in a lot of pain because I was sitting and it was hot. It wasn’t until June, after graduation, when an ER doctor gave me the most helpful information.
My graduation present from my father was a road trip from San Diego back home to New York. During that road trip, it got worse. It was unbelievably painful. We got to Zion National Park one day, and I made some off-hand comments to my dad that it probably wasn’t a good idea because it was hot in the desert and I would sweat.
The next morning I woke up and had a tiny whitehead on my leg. It was different from my other wounds, which were big abscesses. This looked like an ingrown hair, and had appeared overnight. When I stood up and put pressure on my leg, I screamed. I couldn’t walk, and it was because of this tiny little whitehead.
My dad took me to the hospital. After six or seven months of having outbreaks on and off, the ER doctor was the first one to tell me to take out my nose ring. I didn’t know that staph can colonize in your nose, and no doctor had told me to take out my nose ring as part of my preventative measures because staph could be living on it. Between taking out my nose ring, the antibiotics the doctor gave me, and using Manuka honey topically, the outbreak went away, and didn’t come back for almost two years.
After my infection cleared up and I felt free of it, it was like an oppressive heavy blanket lifted off me. It felt amazing.
When the infection came back earlier this year, it was on my face, so it looked like very angry acne. It has been very different this year, though. There’s better research out now than there was even a few years ago. People are becoming more aware of MRSA and sharing more stories. I’m also home with my family and can see a doctor who specializes in infectious diseases on a regular basis.
Even after it cleared up before, I knew I wanted to have an infectious disease specialist who knows me and knows these kinds of infections. I had a lot of bad experiences with doctors when I first had MRSA, so I wanted someone who knew me and knew the case in case it popped back up.
My infectious disease doctor didn’t want to put me on antibiotics the second time. Her line of reasoning was that even though it was on my face and painful, it wasn’t a dire infection. If she put me on antibiotics, it could further complicate any worse outbreaks I have in the future. She told me she wanted me to try to treat it naturally as much as possible. She also told me to go see a dermatologist because acne is a playground for the bacteria to infect.
My diet is super important to reducing the infections—I try to eat as healthily as possible. I also keep everything super clean, which can be a hassle and isn’t environmentally-friendly, which is something that I care about. I feel bad that I’m using so many single-use products, but to be clean, I have to.
I have to keep my stress low, too. The doctors said outbreaks will probably pop up when I’m stressed, so I try to live a simpler lifestyle. The problem is that when it does crop up, it’s time-consuming and painful. Both places where I’ve had it now—my genital area and my face—cause a lot of shame for me. I couldn’t wear bandages over my wounds during the day while trying to find a job. Scarring is an issue, too. I have scars on my face now from staph, but we’ll see if they fade.
I wish people understood how much of our lifestyle is causing the MRSA problem. Even people who don’t necessarily take a lot of antibiotics still eat food with antibiotics in it. The meat industry is still using them.
It’s frustrating that people still don’t understand the difference between bacteria and a virus. If they have a cold, they want to go get medicine from the doctor, and doctors sometimes just prescribe antibiotics to shut the person up. People take them not knowing it’s not going to help their problem, or they take them incorrectly and don’t finish the full dosage. We’re such a germaphobe culture that we’ve created these super germs that are really going to hurt us.
AnnaLee Barclay is a photographer and writer from Long Island.