About one in every 25 hospital patients will acquire an infection during their stay, according to the CDC. Pennsylvania-based publicist Alicia Sheerin, 45, is among the unlucky ones who went to the hospital for help. Sheerin told her story to Prevention's Sarah Klein.
In June 2013 I was sitting in a business meeting when I doubled over in pain and was rushed to the emergency room. The doctors quickly figured out that my gallbladder was to blame: Gallbladder problems are common in people who have had bariatric surgery—a procedure I'd had 8 years earlier. I was told that removing my gallbladder would be pretty simple and that the surgeon would also repair a hernia (another complication related to bariatric surgery) during the operation. The surgery took 6 hours and entailed a 12-inch-long vertical incision.
I expected to stay in the hospital for up to a week while I recovered, but after several days I developed necrosis (meaning that tissue in the incision had died) and a low-grade infection set in. My doctor started me on antibiotics, and I figured everything was fine. It didn't even occur to me that it could turn into something serious, probably because I was so focused on the pain from having undergone abdominal surgery. Moving even the slightest amount hurt, and more significant motion—such as bending to use the bathroom—was excruciating. (See if surgical pain made the list of the Top 10 Most Painful Conditions.)
I ended up staying in the hospital for close to a month. In hindsight, I realized they wouldn't have kept me that long unless I was really sick. But after such a long time I was more than ready to head home when my doctors finally agreed to release me. I assumed everything would be OK from that point: I had prescriptions for antibiotics and pain relievers, plus I had booked a wonderful home health care nurse to help me.
The nurse was great, but she had plans to go on vacation a few days later. I figured I could manage on my own at that point, but over the next weekend I developed a fever and my wound opened and started turning black in places. Redness spread out from the incision across my stomach; the rest of my abdomen was black and blue. I wondered if I should go to the ER, but I assumed they would just tell me to see a doctor on Monday anyway. (Don’t dismiss your symptoms; check out My Sister Would Still Be Alive If She Hadn’t Ignored Her Symptoms.)
By Monday my nurse had returned from her trip, and I told her I had a 101-degree fever. She insisted that I go straight to the hospital.
After emergency surgery to remove the dead and damaged tissue, I was put into quarantine and told that my infection could be contagious. I never found out exactly what type of bacteria was wreaking havoc on my body—just that I had a "surgical site infection," a complication that can crop up within 30 days after surgery. (Balance your hormones and lose up to 15 pounds in 3 weeks with this simple plan.)
There was some talk that maybe my cat had given me the infection, as if the doctors were trying to pin this on me. But there was no evidence that that was the case, and I later learned that hospitals are pretty dangerous places to be: About one in 25 patients end up with a hospital-acquired infection, and around 20% are thought to be incision infections like mine. Germs may originate from other patients or infected health care workers; certain medical devices (like catheters) can also pose a risk.
Slow road to recovery
I spent about another 3 weeks in the hospital before they released me with a home-care plan, complete with thorough instructions for cleaning my dressings and taking antibiotics. I wasn't back on my feet until January 2015—about 18 months after my gallbladder attack.
I wish I could say that was the end of my story, but because of how the wound had healed at my waistline, I had to go back for abdominal reconstructive surgery in August 2014. Since I would be going under the knife and anesthesia again, I decided to have a breast reduction as well. Again, I acquired an infection. It was much less serious this time, but the incision healed more slowly than it should have. My doctors told me that since I had previously had such a severe infection—and had to be treated with numerous rounds of heavy antibiotics—I'm more susceptible than other people. In other words, my immune system has been compromised, forever.
I don't want to blame my doctors; they took great care of me. Even at the best hospitals in the world, this can happen. My advice, if you have a choice for where to have surgery, is to look up hospital infection rates online. You should also do whatever you can to strengthen yourself before surgery so that you can speed up your recovery after (it’s always a good idea to add these 9 Power Foods That Boost Immunity to your diet.). Cutting out caffeine, quitting smoking, and walking more helped me to go home sooner after my last procedure.
After my surgeries and while I was battling infections, I was lucky to be able to rely on my parents for help. Without them, I don't know if I would have made it. But not everyone has such a strong support system. Because of what I've been through, I changed my whole mission in life. I got a job as a publicist with a home care agency, Amada Senior Care, that focuses on not just medical health but behavioral health as well. I'm trying to help seniors get the support they need to stay healthy.
People ask me all the time if the original gastric bypass in 2005, was worth it, since it seems like it kicked off a chain of surgeries and subsequent infections. But I was 335 pounds when I had it done—it was a life or death situation, and I don't regret it at all. I am so much more aware of my body after having been so ill at such a young age, and I'm grateful for that.