started suddenly, with a pain in Erik Jonesí upper left leg
as he was helping a friend move lumber in May 2012. Then came
fever, chills and vomiting.
home and got into bed, pulling the covers up to his chin. The
young man thought he could just sweat it out, as he had all
his childhood fevers. But at 8 p.m., he called his mother on
her cell phone as she was driving back from a dinner out.
"It hurt so bad he couldnít get out of bed," said
Terri Jones, 54.
drove him from their home in Elizabeth Township, near
Pittsburgh, to Jefferson Hospital, and by 6:30 a.m., surgeons
were wheeling him into the operating room. They had already
warned Jonesí parents that they might have to amputate his
necrotizing fasciitis, a bacterial infection that attacks
connective tissue deep beneath the skin. This tissue, called
the fascia, forms a continuous layer around the muscle, so
bacteria can speed along it from one part of the body to
another. The disease is rare ó annually, there are 500 to
1,500 cases in the United States ó but it is harrowing. Not
only can it turn your skin black, or make it lumpy as
bubble-wrap, if left untreated, it can also kill you.
story of Erik Jonesí necrotizing fasciitis has a happy
ending. The 24-year-old is completely healed after two years
of fighting the disease. Yet a medical SWAT-team could not
just swoop in to rescue his overwhelmed immune system.
Instead, his doctors had to coax his body into accepting the
procedures that would save his life.
bacteria that can cause the necrotizing fasciitis are around
us all the time, living on our skin and in the soil, explained
Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist at University
of Pittsburgh Medical Center. The most common are group A
Streptococcus, which also cause strep throat. Why these
species turn into a deadly illness for some and not for others
remains a mystery.
may get it and just get a little pimple. It may not turn into
the disaster it was for Erik," said Kelley Smith, one of
Jonesí surgeons at Jefferson Hospital.
factors include being diabetic or immunocompromised, but
neither was true of Jones. And, as Dr. Smith said, necrotizing
fasciitis is not contagious.
an infection begins, the bacteria can wreak havoc. "Just
as bacteria decompose an animal that has died on the forest
floor, they can use enzymes to decompose live tissue,"
said Dr. Adalja. "These bacteria are using the nutrients
provided by our tissue to live."
day in May 2012, surgeons cut away the infected flesh as fast
as possible to prevent the disease from spreading. But the
next day, they found another area of infection, lower on his
leg, and they began another emergency debridement.
this second surgery, doctors told Terri Jones that they were
fighting not just to save her sonís leg, but also his life.
"I told them to get him out of recovery and back into the
operating room. Iíd rather have him without a leg than not
have him," she said. But as a school-bus driver,
firefighter, hunter and fisherman, Jones had already decided
to keep his leg. The doctors wanted to respect that.
were setbacks. Jones was allergic to two of the antibiotics he
was receiving intravenously, and they had to prescribe others.
His immune system rejected the skin taken from a cadaver and
grafted onto his leg; the graft had to be redone with his own
tissue. Then, these grafts were disturbed by an allergic
reaction to poison ivy, landing him back in the ICU.
was slow and painful. For 10 weeks, he spent two hours every
weekday in a tube where high concentrations of oxygen helped
his wounds heal. And for each change of dressing, Jones was
brought into the operating room and anesthetized.
you have a pain scale from 1 to 10, the pain from this is
100," Jones recalled. But he remained upbeat throughout,
telling his parents "Itís all good" after every
still has both of his legs, and he is driving school buses
again. "Iím not an interior firefighter anymore,"
he said. "Iíll never put a mask on again." But he
is the departmentís engineer, helping put out fires from the
truck. And he is back to his favorite outdoor haunts, like the
Youghiogheny River, where he fishes for trout, bass, pike and
mother, who took a leave from work to care for her son, has a
new job at the local EMS department. "Heís here, he has
his leg, heís working, heís walking," she said.
"All those thousands and thousands of prayers were