A woman spent one month in intensive care and almost lost a leg after catching a rare and deadly flesh-eating bug from a rusty nail.
Colleen O’Connor, 38, was helping her friends renovate a dilapidated house when she scratched her left leg on a nail sticking out of a wall.
WARNING: GRAPHIC PHOTOS AHEAD
Four days later, the Niagara Falls, Ontario, woman woke up suffering excruciating pain in her other leg, which she assumed was down to an injury sustained during one of her regular gym or kickboxing sessions.
When the agony didn’t ease, her parents rushed her to the emergency room, where her body went into shock and she lost consciousness.
She woke up 10 days and three surgeries later at Welland County General Hospital, during which time doctors had diagnosed her with necrotizing fasciitis.
The fast-spreading infection, which affects less than 20,000 people in the U.S. per year, is caused by bacteria that create toxins that destroy tissue.
Medics found black mold ‒ believed to be from the rusty nail ‒ in O'Connor’s bloodstream and medics have pinpointed that as the cause of the infection.
After a month in the ICU and almost three in and out of the hospital, from August to October 2017, O'Connor had 97 staples inserted into her leg to close the wound and relearned how to walk.
Since then, she says she has been diagnosed with PTSD, suffered terrifying nightmares stemming from the ordeal and endured terrible pain.
“I cut myself on a rusty nail hanging out of a wall and wiped it on my sleeve a few times," she said, recalling the incident. “It was deep enough, but it was just a scratch from a nail."
“That was on a Friday and I was fine all weekend, but Monday I slept all day," O'Connor said. "Tuesday I woke up in excruciating pain in my right hamstring. It was like cramping."
“I was screaming in pain and crying. My mom said to my dad, ‘Let’s go to the hospital,’" she said. “I figured I was going to have a shot to help the pain or something. I don’t remember anything, but my mom noticed my leg started going purple and they rushed me down and cut it open. They said the infection leaked right out of me."
“They told my family and friends I was going to die that night," she said. “Everything was shutting down. I was jaundiced and my body was refusing the medication. When I pulled through, the doctor told them, ‘She is going to lose her feet and hands,’ because my circulation was so bad."
“They went in three times to scrape out the infection and they had me on six different pumps with antibiotics,” O'Connor said.
Fortunately, the infection was caught quickly enough that it did not reach her fascia, the fibrous tissue enclosing the muscle.
If it had continued to spread, she may have lost her leg — or her life.
Instead, O'Connor, who worked in fitness before the health scare, spent a month with a wound vac covering her leg before having 97 staples inserted to close the gash.
The scar on her leg, which runs from the top of her thigh to the front of her shin, is a constant reminder of what she has been through.
O'Connor, who lost 45 pounds while in hospital, said it was “pretty cool” when she saw the damage the bug had done for the first time, but added the entire ordeal was “terrifying.”
“It’s not something you ever think is going to happen to you," O'Connor, who has had the help of boyfriend Anton Killy, said. “It was terrifying. I have PTSD from it and I’m seeking counseling. It gives me nightmares."
“Some nights I’m scared to go to sleep because I dream about what happened and the outcome is always worse, gorier," she said. “It has had a huge impact on my life and my mental health."
“I feel very lucky to be alive. I’m still here and I’ve still got my leg. I could have woken up without one," she said. “I just want other people to be cautious. You never know what is out there. It just finds its way in and spreads so quickly.”