About 19,000 people a year die after battling the superbug MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.
Others survive but pay a high price.
That’s what happened to Kerri Cardello, a 39-year-old from Annapolis, Md. Her long fight began on Christmas Day 2003 when she woke up feeling ill. A high, persistent fever sent her to the hospital emergency room, but they sent her home--saying she had the flu.
Cardello just kept getting worse, and on December 30, she woke up struggling to breathe.
“I looked in the mirror and my face was starting to turn gray,” she says now. “I called 911.”
This previously healthy woman, who was 33 at the time, was rushed to the local hospital where they told family members she was dying. “I heard my Mom saying the Lord’s Prayer,” said Cardello.
That was the last thing that Cardello remembers. She was put in a medically-induced coma and transferred to The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where doctors identified a raging MRSA infection.
Infections with MRSA and other microbes are increasingly impervious to antibiotics, like penicillin, that could be counted on in the past to deliver a sure cure. Doctors, like those at Hopkins, often have to use multiple rounds of drugs in order to control an infection. And sometimes the drugs don’t work: About 100,000 Americans die each year after struggling with antibiotic-resistant infections. Twenty years ago, these patients may have been easily cured by the same drugs.
In Cardello’s case, MRSA had infected her legs and was starting to shut down her vital organs. Doctors couldn’t contain it and soon realized they’d have to surgically remove her legs.
They roused Cardello from her coma. She remembers someone telling her they would have to amputate her legs and then all went dark again.
When Cardello woke up in April 2004, she was on a ventilator in the intensive care unit and had been there for months fighting just to stay alive. “I knew that I couldn’t give up,” she says.
During the difficult recovery period, which included a stint in a rehabilitation hospital, Cardello worked harder than she’s ever worked in her life to regain some mobility. She says she drew strength from her days as a high school track star in order to push through the pain.
And she walked out of the rehab hospital in just two months on artificial legs.
But the battle with MRSA has left Cardello without a job and at risk for pneumonia. In the years since that first trip to the ER, she’s been hospitalized about 30 times for MRSA and other problems.
MRSA permanently damaged her lungs so she’s on oxygen, and she carries a small oxygen tank wherever she goes. In addition, the amputation has left her with a syndrome of chronic pain which cannot be controlled with medication.
Cardello probably contracted MRSA during her first trip to a local ER. At the time, she says she had no idea that MRSA and other nasty superbugs could be spread in a health care facility. She’s urging hospitals to pay more attention to hand-washing and infection control procedures, which can prevent the spread of such superbugs.
But that’s only part of the solution to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance, in which our most powerful infection-fighting drugs are increasingly becoming useless. Superbugs like MRSA can now survive many common antibiotics. Why? The over-use and overselling of antibiotics has allowed germs to evolve resistance at an alarming rate—the prevalence of MRSA, for example, climbed from roughly 2 percent to more than 50 percent in many U.S. hospitals from 1974 to 2004.
The only long-term solution is a comprehensive approach that includes incentives for hospitals and pharmaceutical companies to conserve existing antibiotics and encourages drug companies to invest in developing new antibiotics to treat resistant infections. And consumers need to be educated about how their over-use of these drugs contributes to the problem.
As for Cardello, this single mother wants to get the word out but she’s got her hands full with three of four children still at home. She’s still battling health problems and struggles to live on her disability check. Yet Cardello says she’s got a second shot at life and she’s grateful for that:
“I am alive--and that is amazing.”