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The ugly truth about life with a 'superbug'

  • Story Highlights
  • Woman has battled potentially deadly MRSA "superbug" infection six times
  • Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus outwits most antibiotics
  • Specialist sought reason for woman's recurrent infections
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By Jilly Jackson* as told to Maryn Mckenna
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When I heard that high schools were closing and teenagers were dying because of the MRSA superbug, I felt lucky. Since the middle of 2006, I've had methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus six times and somehow managed to avoid the worst: I've never been hospitalized and don't fear for my life. But, please, take my advice and do everything you can to avoid this dangerous infection.


Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, known as MRSA or the staph "superbug," can be fatal.

My first episode was in July 2006. I live in Boston and was going to visit a friend on Nantucket. I leaned back in my seat on the plane and felt a dull pain, like someone was pressing really hard on my buttock. When I arrived I asked my friend to take a look. That sounds embarrassing, but I couldn't see the problem myself. She said it was just a pimple but really red. By the third day the irritated area was more than three inches wide and burning sharply. I was nervous, so I left the island early and went to my doctor.

He gave me an antibiotic called Keflex for a skin infection, but the pimple just got bigger, hotter, harder, and redder. Sitting was almost impossible. And soon it wasn't just my buttock that ached. I had developed a second spot -- on my labia! What are my real risks for MRSA?

What is it?

I still didn't know I had MRSA. Truth is, I hardly knew anything about MRSA. But I wasn't getting better, so while I was at my weekend house in Connecticut, I decided to go to the emergency room. The doctors there gave me a local anesthetic, then cut open and cleaned out the spot on my buttock. The abscess underneath was big enough that they had to pack it with absorbent material to soak up pus. When they cultured the infection, I finally learned it was MRSA. The doctors changed my antibiotic to Augmentin, because the first one wouldn't work against the resistant bug. But they didn't want to touch the spot on my labia.

I'd have to go to a gynecologist for that.

When I returned to Boston, I went back to my doctor's office to get the packing changed, but the doc wouldn't do it because they didn't have the necessary surgical tools. I had to go to the emergency room. I went over to the ER in the same hospital complex; they agreed to change the packing, but didn't want to touch the spot on my labia. Again they said I needed a gyno. Argh! Five doc-tor's visits for this one infection, and the thing was getting worse. I was losing it. Don't worry so much about scary diseases

I walked into the medical building next door and found an OB-GYN's office. They agreed to take a look. The doctor pinpricked the swollen area, got a little pus out, and sent it to be cultured. It was MRSA. Again.

Both spots healed up, and for three weeks I was fine. But then two months later, in September, it happened again: hot, red spots on my perineum and labia. I was really frustrated. I couldn't believe it had come back. Before long I was back at the ER for another draining and culture. More MRSA. More antibiotics, this time something called Bactrim. How not to catch MRSA

Is it my fault?

Eventually, I saw an infectious-disease specialist, who did all kinds of tests (including diabetes and HIV) to figure out whether I had a condition that would make me vulnerable. Everything came up negative. I wasn't surprised. I used to be a professional dancer, and I've always been very healthy. The tests, though, made me feel even more nervous and unsure of myself.

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The specialist couldn't explain why the outbreaks kept coming back, but the fact that they popped up where I sweat was a clue. I work out at the gym three times a week and also run. I'd come straight from the gym and start working in the garden, changing clothes first but waiting until I was back inside to shower. Bad idea. The specialist told me to shower and change clothes right away so that bacteria wouldn't have a chance to breed, and to wash my workout clothes every day. She also had me try "decolonization" -- a real hassle. For five days, I showered with an antibacterial soap called Hibiclens (my husband, too), and for two weeks I put an ointment called Bactroban up my nose (because staph can live there) and on my perineum. I also washed all our sheets and towels every day, in hot water with bleach. Later, I saw a dermatologist who recommended I switch from spandex to loose cotton just in case the tight outfits were rubbing against my skin and leaving tiny abrasions. What a MRSA infection looks like

What more can I do?

I wish I could say that was enough to solve the problem. But last winter the infection came back -- again! --this time under my arm and on my breast. My belly was next, in June, and again in September. Most of these spots, like the others, needed to be drained, packed, and treated with Bactrim.

Had I done something wrong? My friends kept telling me to change doctors, but the docs say the same things: "We're seeing this a lot, and we don't know why it's back." Truth is, I feel I was doing everything right. I'm obsessive now about following the specialists' advice. I'm moisturizing in hopes of avoiding cracks in my skin that might be a breeding ground. I wash my hands all the time. I use my wrists and the backs of my hands to open doors in public restrooms.

I can't imagine what else I could do about MRSA. Except warn you. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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Copyright Health Magazine 2009

*Jilly Jackson is not the author's real name. Maryn McKenna's book on MRSA will be published by Free Press in 2009.

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