I Picked Up a Staph Infection From the Hospital

And it was not pretty.

by Becca Tucker
Dec 5 2016, 7:00pm

Scene 1: As the golf cart buggied me to the medical tent, fellow Ultimate players gawked. Tucker, you? I thought you were indestructible, they said. I shrugged ruefully. I thought so too. My body, built like a boy's, is not elegant or gazelle-like as I sometimes wish when I pass the Victoria's Secret window, but I have always appreciated its durability, its ability to hit the ground hard and not feel a goddamn thing until next day's shower when the water hits the raw wound, yellow from many re-openings. But this hit I hadn't seen coming. I had stopped short for a high floaty disc when my trailing defender crashed into me from behind. One teammate said she "climbed up you like you were a tree." All I know is suddenly my knee was ripping as my leg bent sideways faster than my body could fall.

I writhed in the grass, teeth tearing clumps of grass. My knee was torn and my season, over.

My ACL surgeon came highly recommended, like all the surgeons at the Hospital for Special Surgery. You can tell by the way people nod approvingly—"ah, H.S.S."—it's the Ivy League of hospitals, aptly located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Educate yourself if it floats your boat, but if you're squeamish or just lazy you can waltz into their capable hands and expect to wake up fixed, though you possess only the foggiest understanding of which scar is the one where they went in to cut out a bundle from your hamstring or with what sort of fastening device they attached your new ACL to your, uh, leg-bone.

When I emerged from that oblivious realm between life and death, the surgeon's words had already sunk in: the surgery was a success. Two weeks later I was walking sans crutches.

Two weeks after that, my progress halted abruptly. The swelling came back. Pain flooded the joint when I stood up. I wanted to punch my physical therapist in the face when he worked on my range of motion. I sobbed every day like a battered girlfriend, hobbling home after work to collapse into my easy chair and numb the knee with ice.

My pants hardly fit over my knee as I got dressed for work. At work, the first time I tried to speak, I burst into tears instead. I called the doctor. He would squeeze me in.

Scene 2: My doctor aspirated (that's medicalese for "drained") fluid from my knee: yellow and slightly viscous. He seemed surprised, and that's never good. He simultaneously: sent knee fluid to the lab, sent me with a lab request sheet marked STAT to get blood work and medical clearance for surgery; and admittance paperwork to be done in remote reaches of the hospital, for which purpose I was assigned a wheelchair. I'd arrived at the doctor's office around 2 pm; by 6 pm I was experiencing deja vu (even had the same admitting nurse from a month ago) as I got wheeled into the operating room.

What had gone wrong? During my surgery, staphylococcus epidermidis bacteria, which live harmlessly—maybe even symbiotically—on human skin, had made their way into the deep recesses of my knee, where they had been quietly reproducing. But I had had a fancy surgeon, the Mets' team physician! Still, he himself had advised me, in his pre-surgery small-print talk, of the two percent probability that I could get an infection. It could happen to anyone; it happened to Tom Brady.

The second surgery was going to be an irrigation. My doc re-opened my knee at the incision site and flushed it with water. It's cloudy in there, he told me afterwards, but everything's intact. The infection didn't eat the ACL graft, which is the worst case scenario. I stayed the night in a private room on the brand new seventh floor of the Hospital for Special Surgery, which I'm not sure if I scored because I was carrying a communicable infection, or because they were trying to discourage a lawsuit.

Two nurses came to get me at 7 pm for my second irrigation. They had that kind of end-of-shift je ne se quoi about them. They didn't put me in a new gown. I had to ask for new socks.

I woke up alone in a room with a white sheet covering my legs, which I could neither see nor feel. Was I an amputee? I tried to yell but my voice was a barely audible rasp. When my voice finally made it into the next room, sounding like Bob Dylan's, the nurse came in and told me I was okay, the surgery was a success—blah blah, heard that one before. GODDAMMIT, where was she five minutes ago and GODDAMMIT, (to husband Joe) I said I wanted a cheeseburger when I woke up.

I got my cheeseburger, took three bites, and felt full of outlaw pride as my nurse Mike scolded me about the dangers of blockage and how I first had to drink juices. It's not so obvious how one can assert oneself when one is being fed and drugged through tubes, but yeah, I'd bucked the system. Mike, I said superciliously: bring me some juices.

I thought I was done with my surgeries, but there was just one more little afterthought of a thing: the insertion of what one of my doctors had called "a glorified I.V." A motherly Asian woman put me under an ultrasound machine to find a fat juicy artery. She gave me a shot of local anesthesia. She inserted some sort of wire into an incision in my bicep and wove it up near my heart. It didn't hurt, really, but if there's something just as bad as pain, it's a wire nudging its way toward your heart. Sometimes it would snag, and then I'd feel a pinch. Now she was talking to a guy in the hallway about her plans to go skiing in Utah.

Then it was done. She stitched it into place, and said, "See, wasn't that easy?"

I managed to wait 'til I'd been wheeled out of the room before abandoning myself to blubbering sobs. Someone in scrubs drew a blue curtain around me and Joe. It was an unlikely sanctuary, there in Joe's arms, across from a bank of elevators. For a moment, at least, no one was going to stab me with anything.

For the next six weeks I would have an IV stub in my arm. A nurse would come to my house and teach me how to hook myself up to an antibiotic drip. Someone would come every week to give me a new bag, but after the first time it would be up to me and Joe to administer the antibiotic into the line next to my heart. Apparently an air bubble could prove fatal. We cannot do this stoned, Joe and I agreed.

Scene 3: It was another raging Friday night in the suburbs. I plugged myself into my I.V. antibiotic and Joe and I settled down to watch Rebecca, the creepy Alfred Hitchcock movie. After the drug had entered my bloodstream, my skin started to crawl. It added to the effect of the movie, which wasn't really very scary at all.  Then I started getting cold, so I hunkered way down inside my sub-zero sleeping bag, and then eventually the bed.

For all the effectiveness of Joe's attempts to warm me up, he might have been a metal spoon instead of a human one. I was quaking. My muscles felt like they were going to pull if I shivered once more, but for hours and hours, shiver I would. I took Benadryl. I smoked weed. Joe led me through a meditation. Finally, I was able to take one deep uninterrupted breath, then another.

When I woke up in the morning, I was spent, but elated. I had slept. I could lie comfortably in bed for as long as I wanted and sleep more. It was Saturday. But ain't no rest for the weary... it was 9 am, time to dose again.  I called my doctor to ask him if I should really put more of that shit in my body. Yes, he said, dose again.

A little background: On Thursday, my doc had switched me from the super-antibiotic I'd been on since the surgery (vancomycin) to a new less toxic antibiotic (cefazolin) specific to my strain of staph, which they had identified after growing the bug out in a lab. I took the cefazolin on Thursday, and on Friday I woke up with a rash on my arms and legs and stomach. So my doc put me back on the vancomycin, assuming I was allergic to the cefazolin. It was a fair assumption, given the information at hand—but one that would prove inaccurate. In fact, I'd had a delayed allergic reaction to the vancomycin, which he had just instructed me to take again.

The only way you can predict an allergic reaction is a past history of sensitivity—in hindsight, my rash was trying to tell us something. Re-administration of vancomycin to someone who's allergic can cause anaphylaxis, which can kill you.

I lay on the bed next to the ball of vancomycin, watching it shrivel as its contents mingled with my bloodstream through the line in my arm, and thought, what a strange form for an enemy to take.  I will beat you, plastic little enemy. I got that same tingling on my skin as I had the night before, but my memory is short, and I'd forgotten that that's the way it all began last time.  For a few minutes, the tingling seemed to be the extent of it. I did a victory dance.

Then the first wave of shivers hit. I tried evasive maneuvers, such as 1) walking around and 2) pretending nothing was wrong, but eventually I found myself back in defensive position: hunkered down in the bottom of my sleeping bag, rocked by spasms of shivering.

Joe went to the drug store to get a thermometer: 104. He shook it, tested his own temperature, tested mine again. 104.2. Hospital? Nah, I'd sleep it off. Hours later, I had a temperature of 104.8. Face, hands, feet puffy. Vision blurry. Bump, bump, bump in the Jeep to New York Hospital.

The ER waiting room looks like the DMV. I fall into a half-sleep over the armrest of a seat til it's time to be seen. They give me ice packs for under my armpits, wheel me off on a stretcher and park me under an EXIT sign where various machines are beeping at different rates. The ice packs get warm. It appears they may have forgotten about us.

A doctor comes over, balding, aggressive. He asks what happened. His tone is somehow accusatory. At this point, it's a long history and I might die before I get through it. I ask him if I can get some Benadryl first, and then I'll regale him. He says, "Benadryl is not going to do ANYthing for you at this point. You're FEBRILE.  I think you might be SEPTIC. Maybe you have RED MAN syndrome, but that would have gone away after a few hours. There's no WAY you should be feeling... SO UNCOMFORTABLE, SEVEN HOURS after dosing."

He is not being helpful.

"You're young," he says. "You have this [makes a face and gestures wildly toward my lower body with his hands] NASTY infection going on. Then you've got all this [makes face and gestures toward my upper body/head] OTHER stuff happening. We DO NOT want to mess this up."

"Well," I say sadly and dramatically to Joe, after the doctor has stormed off, "I was born here, and it looks like I'm going to die here."

But then a wonderfully sane young nurse named Sarah comes over to my forgotten corner underneath the EXIT sign, draws many test tubes of blood, hooks me up to a Benadryl drip, a Pepsid drip, and some fluids. I feel immediately, drastically better, and so I do what I always do when I feel like myself: ask for food. She wheels me into an enclave and brings me tray upon tray of (dry looking, but hey) lasagna, fish, sandwiches.

They keep me overnight, which is okay by me because a Saturday night in the ER promises drunk old ladies who hit their heads and don't know who they are—and delivers. A parade of docs visits, but now I'm fine. ! Still, they think my fever is somehow related to the infection (either the staph in my knee or some new infection in my blood) but I know it was all an allergic reaction to the vancomycin. They are unconvinced.

They want to X-ray my chest to make sure it's not pneumonia. I fight them off on that. They want to take out the surgically implanted I.V. line because they think maybe there's bacteria attached to the plastic. I am firm. I tell them if I run a fever again, then they can take it out, they can X-ray my chest, they can have my firstborn child.  

The next day, we bust out of there. They wanted me in 'til Monday, but we capitalized on poor communication between shifts, took what the defense gave us, acted real confident, and told them we were ready to be released. And so, 24 hours later, we are listening to Abbey Road and peeling out of the city with the windows down. The changing leaves along the Palisades never looked so outrageous.