Salmonella typhimurium (red) invading cultured human cellsThis week Dame Sally Davies, the Government's Chief Medical Officer warned that we could slip back 200 years unless the "catastrophic threat" of antibiotic resistance is successfully tackled. She declared that in 20 years' time even minor surgery may lead to death through untreatable infections. Antimicrobial resistance is a ticking time-bomb not only for the UK but also for the world.
About 18 months ago I wrote about a bacterium experience that H suffered from which I called "Beware Bacteria". It seems an opportune moment to repost some of it here following the warnings from Dame Sally Davies this past week.
To set the scene, H and I have taken hardly any antibiotics during our lifetime, less than the fingers on one hand each, we have been fortunate. We wrongly assumed that this gave us some safe guard, but of course it has nothing whatsoever to do with how much antibiotic you have taken during your lifetime but to do with the fact that the bacterium have mutated and become stronger against the antibiotics themselves.
It is exactly 5 years ago this week that H suddenly became ill. I had never known him to be ill before - he was a strong man, an oarsman who rowed in his youth for his university, climbed mountains and walked for miles.
E. Coli Bacteria via wikipedia
Bacterium is generally regarded as one of the first forms of life on our planet, and it is likely that they will be the last.
Suddenly, one evening H said that he was off to bed, it was only 8 pm. When I went upstairs to see him I discovered that he was roasting hot, and in the morning all of the bed linen was drenched from his fever. Now H does not do illness, so off he went to do his duty at our local Citizens Advice Bureau, where if the truth be known he should not have gone, and he became worse. Instead of climbing up the long steep hill back to our home, as per normal, someone kindly bought him home in a car.
The following morning I made an appointment with our doctor. She arranged for blood tests, could find nothing wrong with his heart, blood pressure etc, and said she wanted him to have an x-ray to check whether he had pneumonia. The x-rays came back clear, but still the fever continued. He had slight twinges in his back and in the end it seemed to be put down to back trouble. There was obviously something wrong, but what? He continued to get weaker and weaker, but the medics seemed to think that when the sunshine arrived, and if we were to take a holiday, things would improve. To cut a long story short, the pain in his back became really bad, and losing so many essential minerals from his body every night, as a result of the fever, he became very weak, and started to look many years older than he was. A different doctor came to the house, and gave him strong pain killers, and said he could send him into hospital, but followed it up by saying, hospitals are not nice places to be, advising that he would be much more comfortable in our home. That night H could stand it no longer. He was exhausted through lack of sleep for so many weeks, and weary. He came downstairs with his bag packed, and said "take me to hospital". Once there, the duty doctor could also find nothing wrong as per the other doctors. He said he would admit him, as he was obviously ill, but stated that there were 14 patients waiting ahead of him for a bed, indicating that we should probably go home. H stood his ground (albeit from a wheel chair) and said he was not going anywhere, and was staying where he was until the cause was found.
The following day he was put in an MRI scan, and they discovered that he had an infection in his spine. We were so relieved and thought good, some antibiotic and all will be well. How wrong and innocent could we be. After 10 days in hospital he did not seem to be making any progress, and my anxiety levels for him started to increase. Days later his legs gave way and turned to jelly, he became doubly incontinent, and just lay flat on his back. It took the hospital 4 days before taking any action, and finally he was sent to a hospital specialising in neurosurgery. He was taken in an ambulance with the blue light flashing to a hospital 30 miles away. I felt so helpless, I had thought he just had an infection, and that it would clear up with the right treatment. It was at this stage that I finally managed to get hold of someone and ask exactly what was going on. I was totally shocked and horrified to learn that the E. Coli bacteria had somehow got into his blood stream, where it had travelled in his blood through his bones and had lodged in his vertebrae. It was rotting the bones, and turning them soggy!!! The collapsing vertebrae were damaging his spinal cord hence he was unable function properly. I just could not believe it, and was so cross that we had been kept in the dark.
A wonderful surgeon operated on him. Before doing so, he told us that there were 14 Neurosurgeons in the hospital, but they had all refused to operate on him. He told us that he was the only person in the southwest region who was able to do the surgery. He removed two soggy vertebrae and managed to scrape and save the third one, which had become infected, whilst he was in the previous hospital. He put a titanium cage around his spinal cord by the following means. A jack, which is still in situ, was inserted to hold the vertebrae apart; the neighbouring vertebrae were then held in place with rods and spikes. He could offer no guarantee as to the outcome, but we were just so grateful that he was around – he went on holiday the following week.
H was in hospital for 6 weeks, and was ill for 6 weeks before that. He came home from hospital extremely weak, unable to walk without using a walking frame. Fortunately the nerve damage which caused his jelly legs and incontinence all repaired themselves, and because of all the hard work and determination H put into his recovery, he is now once again walking the hills and mountains and doing everything he did before. We do realise that he had a very narrow escape and is extremely lucky to still be an able person, and not wheel chair bound.
The technology in H's back showing the titanium cage and jack
This shows how the two rods and spikes held the cage firmly in place when the jack was operated.
This apparently can happen to anyone, young or old. We do, incidentally, have more bacteria in our bodies than we have cells. It is rare, but thank goodness for technology in the form of the MRI and CAT scanners and his wonderful Surgeon.