Lucky to be alive...
How often do you get sick?
We live in a dirty world, and our bodies are only so strong. Given the hundreds of millions of bacteria we come in contact with in a given day (depending on our environment, of course), it’s no surprise that at least a few will be pathogenic or succeed in colonizing in or on our bodies, perhaps even causing some gross or lousy side effects. But considering all of the harmful pathogens our body automatically takes care of without us hardly even noticing, it’s truly a feat of biology that we stay so healthy… and a major convenience for us!
Especially for those of us who have access to and partake in modern medicine, fighting off the millions of bacteria we encounter in our day to day lives has become easier and more thoughtless than at any point in human history. Diseases that were most often fatal even to our near ancestors are shrugged off today in many countries as practically harmless, and that’s not even mentioning the illnesses that have been eradicated entirely. Immunizations have changed the world of medicine, and the smallpox vaccine alone prevents upwards of five million untimely fatalities every year. Progress with the development and distribution of other vaccines means infectious diseases like polio, whooping cough, and even the measles may all become historical illnesses of the past that future generations will never suffer from but only read about instead.
That being said, most everyone still gets sick from time to time, no matter how often they wash their hands and no matter how sterile the environment they work and live in. After all, at the end of the day, we’re only animals. You just have to hope that whatever you do get sick with is only something minor that can be easily shaken off or otherwise quickly treated by whatever medicine your doctor prescribes or that you grab over the counter.
Unfortunately, this simple solution just isn’t the case for everyone. For one man named Alex Lewis, a short battle with the common cold would turn out to be anything but common, and before he knew it, he was in a fight for his life and would lose most of his physical self along the way. But did he gain just as much in return? Here’s his story.
As the saying goes, “health is wealth.” Without your health, they often tell you, you have nothing. And yet so many of us take for granted the fact that we are able to wake up and get ourselves out of bed in the morning and go on to live autonomous, unobstructed, and active lifestyles.
Alex Lewis of Stockbridge, Hampshire, England was your typical boyfriend, father, and pub owner in his early 30s when his life would change forever, and it all started with a cold. Yes, the same cold that hundreds of millions of adults get 2-3 times a year (children can get 6-8!). It’s no wonder that colds are the most frequently occurring infectious diseases in humans. Though it started with a tickle in his throat, his symptoms soon worsened and became more flu-like with a strong headache, exhaustion, and stuffy sinuses. We’ve all been there, right? Alex’s condition, however, grew even more severe as his headache continued and he had unbearable pain in his arms and legs. Even more alarming were the purple blotches that began popping up all over his skin and spreading rapidly. That’s when his partner Lucy knew it was time to call an ambulance.
At the hospital, it wasn’t long until Alex got his diagnosis, and it certainly wasn’t the flu. He recalls, “I think my immune system must have been weak at some point. But, really, it was a complete fluke. They don’t know how I got it. I was just very unlucky.”
Somehow, Alex had contracted a group A streptococcal infection (GAS or Strep A), and we’re not talking about your run of the mill strep throat. Though it’s the same type of bacteria, strep throat (pharyngitis) is a non-invasive form of the infection, but Mr. Lewis contracted an invasive version that is much less common but much, much more deadly. (Still, that’s bound to make things a bit scarier the next time you or a friend are dealing with a bout of strep throat…)
Within hours, Alex was fighting for his life. The Strep A bacteria had spread throughout his body and was already attacking his organs and swiftly killing his tissue. As his skin continued to blacken, marking the death of his own body, the infection brought on toxic shock syndrome (TSS) in Alex’s arms, legs, and face. He was experiencing septicemia and necrotizing fasciitis. Just days after he first started feeling sick, doctors told Alex that he had just a 3% chance of survival.
To stop the lethal infection from spreading or killing any more of his body, there was only one solution: amputation. In his own words: “I contracted what I thought was a common cold and it turned into a flu which then lead to Strep A. We had no idea what that was at the time and then about two weeks later we found ourselves undergoing amputations. Arm off, legs off and then six months in hospital with facial disfigurement.” It was a period of time filled with doubt and uncertainty.
“I think Lucy and I were quite laid back and just said, ‘Oh, well that’s a bit s***.’ I understood the necessity, it was a case of needs must. There was no thinking about anything down the line – how I would cope, what we’d do – it was about the there and now.”
Alex did what he had to do to stay alive. By the time they started surgery, his lips had already rotted away, leaving just a fleshy opening around his teeth where his mouth had once been. They removed his left arm and both of his legs in order to stop the advance of the flesh-eating bacteria that was steadily destroying his body from the limbs inward. Lucky to have his right arm still in tact, Alex’s luck would get even worse when several months later, he broke his remaining limb simply from rolling over onto it in the middle of the night. Of course, this wasn’t happenstance: Doctors found that the Strep A was still active and had moved into the bone in his arm, simultaneously making it weak while giving itself a direct passageway to his torso and heart, a move that would certainly kill him. Doctors were forced to amputate his arm just below the elbow. After what felt like a common cold when it started, Alex was now a quadruple amputee.
Still, Alex looked on the bright side: “I shouldn’t have survived it. I think 10,000 people a year contract Strep in some form, and of those about 9,600 die. Then of the 400 left, only about 10 have quadruple amputations. I’m one of the lucky ones, definitely.”