“I Survived a Flesh-Eating Bacteria”

Author Hampton Sides was 41 years old, in the prime of life, and (he thought) in excellent health.

flesh bacteria
Silja Goetz for Reader’s Digest

IT STARTED OUT as a funny little patch on my right elbow, itchy and raw. I figured it was a bug bite and gave it no more thought. But the next day, I woke up with throbbing pain and curious-looking red streaks extending up and down my arm.

A few hours later, my forearm had swelled hideously, and the skin had grown rigid and hot to the touch. I started to breathe uneasily. I felt dizzy and feverish, then collapsed half-delirious on the floor. My wife, Anne, rushed me to the hospital, where the ER docs found that I was in septic shock.

What I had was a rare flesh-eating streptococcus infection, introduced by a puncture wound of uncertain origin—possibly from a spider bite. I’d just returned from several months in Kuwait and Qatar, where I was writing about the Iraq war. Maybe I’d picked up the bacteria there?

Technically known as necrotizing fasciitis, the infection was something out of a Stephen King novel: Great ravening armies of microbes were laying waste to the meat of my arm, filling my subcutaneous tissues with exotoxins. The ER doc took a black Sharpie and drew a line near my wrist, noting that if the redness advanced beyond this boundary, I would be in serious trouble. Over the next hour, the strep marched right past the mark and was well on its way to my hand; half my arm had been consumed.

The doctor told Anne we should be prepared: Cutting off my arm might be the only way to save me.

I was 41 years old, in the prime of life, and (I thought) in excellent health. In a week, Anne and I were set to move into a house we’d spent a year renovating. We’d just emerged from the Urine Years—our three boys, at last, were done with diapers. My career was more or less where I wanted it to be. I was feeling … not invincible but firmly in control of my luck.

But my uninvited guests had made a deep impression on me—the idea that these superbug strains are just out there, a skin thickness away, loitering in their millions on the ordinary surfaces of the world. Life was even more fragile, more fraught with random hazard, than I’d realized.

When the ER doctor sliced open my arm to “irrigate” the tissues, the stuff that came out was beyond disgusting. He pumped various IV antibiotics into me, but they didn’t work. He speculated that perhaps something in the inoculations that a Marine medic had given me in Kuwait—a cocktail that included the anthrax and smallpox vaccines—had compromised my immune system. But he had one more item in his quiver, an astronomically expensive “designer” antibiotic.

“This one,” he said, “is on loan from God.”

It took a day, but the red armies began to recede. In a few weeks, my arm was back to normal.

I’m 51 now, and our kids are in college or on the verge of it. The Taxi Service Years have given way to the Raise a Vein for the Bursar Years.

Now Anne and I are feeling freer to move about the cabin again. We’re thinking of living abroad, learning a new culture, a new language. Chile looks good, or Barcelona. We’re going to wing it. Wherever it is, I’ll look upon the adventure as time on loan from God—or at least from his antibiotics department.

Hampton Sides is an award-winning author and an editor-at-large for Outside magazine.

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