On a June day in 2015, Alecia Kennen was going about her routine when she accidentally tripped over the family dog. Her right shoulder broke the fall, and she ended up with a pretty standard case of rug burn—at least that's what she assumed at first.
"I never thought that it could turn into what it did," Kennen, 37, tells Health.
A few days later, Kennen felt an unusual pain under her right armpit, she says. She went to work and tried to brush it off, but halfway through the day, the pain had gotten so bad that she knew she had to get to the hospital.
She saw multiple doctors near her home in Wisconsin over the next few days, but none of them could figure out what was wrong. In addition to the unbearable pain, she had a fever, aches, nausea, and she was starting to feel delirious. "It was like the pain was so bad that I couldn't focus on anything else," she says.
It wasn't until she returned to the ER three days after the pain began that doctors recognized this was an emergency.
Kennen was immediately taken by helicopter to Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where her symptoms continued to worsen. She was bleeding internally, her lungs had filled with fluid, and she was going into multi-organ shut down. Kennen says after many tests, the doctors, who were at a loss, told her family that she was losing the battle with this mystery illness, and that it was time for them to say goodbye.
Around the same time, the doctors found out Kennen's sons had been complaining of sore throats. They tested them for strep, and all three came back positive. "It was the hint the doctors needed," Kennen says.
Kennen was diagnosed with group A Streptococcus toxic shock syndrome (TSS) shortly after. TSS is a rare, potentially deadly complication of certain bacterial infections, like group A strep. Most know TSS because you can get it from leaving a tampon in for too long (a highly-absorbent tampon left in the body for long periods of time can create the right environment for rapid growth of bacteria). But the bacteria can also enter the body through cuts and scrapes, like Kennen's rug burn. (The doctors couldn't know for sure that it entered through the rug burn, Kennen says, but they didn't see how else the bacteria could have gotten into her bloodstream.)
By the time she was diagnosed, her fingers and toes had started to turn black due to a lack of blood flow and oxygen reaching her extremities. She was rapidly declining. Kennen was airlifted to UW Health University Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin, where she remained for treatment for the next few weeks.
Doctors performed blood transfusions, as well as dialysis to keep her kidneys functioning. They also had to amputate all of Kennen's fingertips at the knuckle because the tissue was necrotic, or dead. She was finally discharged in August 2015, about two months after she first went to the hospital.
But that wasn't the end of Kennen's battle—the infection ended up recurring multiple times.
In January 2016, the infection came back in Kennen's right foot, and doctors had to amputate her toes. Then, in June of this year, it came back in her foot once again, and doctors amputated her right leg below the knee. She explains that the recurrences have been more mild than the first time, presenting with common symptoms of infection, such as swelling, heat, and redness in the affected area. The amputations, however, have been life-changing.
"I've been pretty much wheelchair bound, which makes it difficult to take care of my children," she says. "I've had to learn completely new ways of doing things. Everything I do, even if it's a simple task, takes twice as long. I'm really hoping that this will be the last of it and that I can get back to living somewhat of a normal life."
Kennen had to leave her job as a legal assistant when she first got the infection in 2015. In the four years since, she says there was just one stint of about nine months where she was well enough to work. She's hoping she'll be able to go back for longer, ideally indefinitely, when she's fully recovered from her most recent amputation.
Fortunately, she's had her three boys, as well as a network of family and friends, to support her through these trying times. "My boys are definitely the reason that I've tried to live every day since to the fullest," she says. "I've been blessed by my family, my friends, the community. My support system has been key."
Kennen says she's sharing her story to alert people to the dangers of TSS and to the possibility of developing it from things other than tampon use. "You get a rug burn, you get a small cut, and you never think it's something that could end your life in days," she says. "I just want people to know that it can happen, and to know the signs and the symptoms, because I didn't, and I wish I would've had a better understanding that things like this are rare but they can happen."
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