Deadly staph infections have become more common in recent years

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October 25, 2007
— The light-headed, dizzy feeling started for Matt Titus on a Friday night after a normal day of school.

The 16-year-old Milton junior explained the symptoms to his mother, Susan, but she told him to just take it easy, lie down and drink some water.

By Saturday, a pimple on his face had swelled so much that they went to Edgerton Hospital and Health Services. Doctors thought it was an abscess and told them to go to Mercy Hospital if conditions worsened.

By Sunday morning, Matt had gotten sick from the pain. The pimple on his face was bigger than a lemon. Susan rushed her son to Mercy, where doctors started running blood tests.

Matt was admitted to the hospital, but doctor after doctor—it seemed like six—couldn’t identify the problem, Matt said.

By Monday afternoon, they discovered the problem: an infection of staph, or Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, that had started at the pimple. The infection already was in his blood stream, taking over his lungs. If it had gone untreated any longer, it would have infected all of his organs, and he would have died the next day, doctors told them.

“It’s scary,” Susan said. “All of a sudden, your kid is laying there, and this infection is spreading like wildfire in their body.”

Often called MRSA, the severe skin infection is caused by bacteria resistant to common antibiotics, and it’s become more common in the last five years, said Dr. Keith Konkol, an infectious disease doctor at Mercy Clinic West.

It’s been around for a long time, mostly in hospitals, but because of increasing antibiotic usage and overuse, MRSA developed a stronger resistance and started showing up in the community as a soft tissue infection, he said.

MRSA is blamed for the death of a high school senior in Virginia last week.

Everybody reads about that news, Susan said, but they don’t realize it’s right here.

“It is something really to watch out for,” she said.

MRSA sometimes first appears on the skin as a red, swollen pimple or boil, as in Matt’s case, that may be painful or have pus. It can spread by skin-to-skin contact or by touching surfaces contaminated with the germ.

Matt’s not sure where he picked it up, but he thinks it might have been at school because that was the only public place he had been.

About 30 percent of the U.S. population carries the bacteria, said Dr. Joseph Schurhammer of the Rock County Health Department.

“When somebody knows they have it, they take more aggressive measures to prevent other people from getting it,” he said.

Konkol sees a couple patients a week with MRSA, usually outpatients with non-life threatening situations.

“Many are young, healthy and haven’t been in the hospital and haven’t been on antibiotics,” he said.

Which leaves the Tituses shaking their heads at how an infected pimple could nearly take down the 6-foot, 5-inch, 240-pound Matt, who’s been healthy and hasn’t taken antibiotics in two years.

Once doctors realized the MRSA had spread to his lungs, they ran tests to make sure it hadn’t reached his heart.

It hadn’t, but before the family knew that, doctors told them not to worry too much because they could do open-heart surgery.

“It’s very overwhelming,” Matt said.

After this experience, his hands will be the cleanest you will find.

“You have to have hygiene,” he said.

Susan wants parents to take MRSA seriously and listen to their children when they have a concern. Matt wants kids to tell someone when they are in pain, not just deal with it.

Often, kids come to their parents with aches or problems, asking to stay home from school, Susan said.

“So many times we say, ‘No, go to school.’ … You just kind of think they’re trying to get out of school. Well, I wouldn’t want a parent to do that because that could mean …”

“… Life and death,” Matt said, finishing for her.

Matt spent a week in the hospital, and his lungs are responding to a twice-daily dose of intravenous antibiotics. He’s been out of the hospital for two weeks, now, and returned to school Monday.

Susan gets up at 4 a.m. everyday, gets Matt’s medicine out of the refrigerator and by 5 a.m. has him hooked up to an IV, which runs until 7 a.m. Then it’s time to wrap his arm in plastic, shower and get to school. The process repeats 12 hours later and will continue for the next 4 to 6 weeks, along with weekly doctor visitors.

“I just want people to know about it so it doesn’t happen to anybody else,” Matt said.


Several steps can be taken to help prevent a staph infection.

-- Good hygiene is the best way to avoid infection.

-- Keep your hands clean by washing thoroughly with soap and water or using an alcohol-based hand cleaner.

-- Keep cuts and scrapes clean and covered with a bandage until healed.

-- Avoid contact with other people’s wounds or bandages.

-- Don’t share personal items such as towels, razors or water bottles.

What is MRSA?

MRSA stands for Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, and it’s a severe skin infection caused by bacteria resistant to common antibiotics.

It often shows up as a boil or a bad pimple, said Dr. Keith Konkol, an infectious disease doctor at Mercy Clinic West.

Parents should watch for reoccurring boils in their teenage children. The boils tend to occur in moist areas such as the nape of the neck, armpits and groin, but they can show up anywhere, Konkol said.

There’s no reason to exclude these kids from schools, he said. It comes down teaching good hygiene and cleaning and covering open wounds, he said.

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