MARQUETTE - When Marquette resident Kristin Walton cut her thumb three years ago, she never expected the injury would change her life.
Walton went to the emergency room, received stitches for the wound and returned home. A few days later, she was pounding a nail in when the hammer slipped and glanced of the back of her hand. Immediately, she noticed the fresh injury hurt more than it should have, and bled excessively.
When the pain began to radiate up her arm, she realized something was wrong. She said that within an hour, she was no longer lucid.
A skin graft on the back of Kristin Walton’s left hand is seen here, months after she was treated for necrotizing fasciitis. Fewer than 1,500 people contract the disease in the United States each year, but roughly one-third of those patients die. (Kristin Walton photo)
Via the cut on her thumb, Walton had contracted necrotizing fasciitis, a fast-moving and deadly disease more commonly known as a "flesh-eating bacteria."
Walton's adult son, who happened to be home at the time, took her to the emergency room at Marquette General Hospital, and she remembers very little from the ensuing days.
She spent a week in intensive care, developed a high fever and became septic. There are weeks, she said, of which she has no recollection. She was an in-patient for nearly two months.
Now, a few years and countless surgeries removed from her bout with a disease that has a 40 percent mortality rate, Walton said she realizes she is incredibly lucky.
"When I look at what could have happened if I hadn't hit my hand," she said recently, shaking her head. "Or if my son hadn't been there."
Though NF has risen to national prominence recently, following the very public case of Aimee Copeland, the Georgia woman who lost one leg, both feet and both hands to the disease this spring, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that no more than 1,500 cases occur in the United States every year.
An extremely rare infection, NF impacts the deeper layers of the skin and tissue and can very quickly spread in the fascia, the connective tissue surrounding muscles. The infection often presents at the site of a trauma, sometimes a surprisingly insignificant bruise or scrape. Following the trauma, the progression of NF can be stunningly fast and will kill subcutaneous tissue as it progresses.
NF can lead to toxic shock syndrome and renal failure and without medical assistance, the rapidly moving infection will lead to death, usually within four to five days.
Between 15 and 30 percent of the population carry the bacteria that causes NF in the throat or on the skin, but exhibit no symptoms. Transmission of the bacteria - via touch, coughing or sneezing - is common but rarely causes the disease.
Even if it is treated early and agressively, more than a third of the people who contract necrotizing fasciitis will die. If left untreated, the mortality rate is 100 percent. Walton suffers from moderate lupus, which likely made her more susceptible to infection.
At the time of her infection, she was a nurse at MGH; she knew what necrotizing fasciitis was, but had never seen a case first-hand. She recalls hearing the name of the disease from a doctor hovering over her.
"I was incredibly frightened," said Walton, who was slipping in and out of consciousness at the time. "I do remember waking up and being so happy to see those (operating room) lights."
The only treatment for NF is immediate and repeated surgical removal of the affected skin areas and Walton had numerous surgeries. During NF treatment, the wound is often kept open for a period of time to ensure the infection stops progressing.
"Having ankle reconstruction, having children, this is the worst pain, bar none, I've ever felt," Walton said.
Once the disease was eradicated, doctors used skin from Walton's thigh to create a graft for her arm, starting at the second knuckle of the fingers on her left hand and spanning more than half the distance to her elbow.
After about seven months, Walton returned to work, on light duty. One year after she cut her thumb, she was back working full time. Today, she is taking a break from work and considering returning to school for a masters.
Walton knows she was luckier than Copeland has been. The disease only affected one of Walton's limbs, and she avoided amputation. She only has about 50 percent use of her hand - she has trouble gripping cans or handling small items - but she thinks the experience has helped her in a number of ways.
Primarily, she hopes to use her ordeal as a way to educate and assist. Perhaps a masters degree, she said, can help her teach nursing or act as a counselor.
"It's scary to think that something can grab you that fast you and hurt you that much," Walton said. "People need somebody to talk to about the scary stuff."
Kyle Whitney can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.