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Health Team

Raleigh woman survived bout with flesh-eating bacteria

Posted May 17, 2012 4:43 p.m. EDT
Updated May 17, 2012 6:08 p.m. EDT

The story of a Georgia graduate student who risks the loss of her limbs and even her life from an infection with flesh-eating bacteria is a rare but scary tale from the world of medicine. Aimee Copeland cut her leg while zip-lining two weeks ago.

In South Carolina, Lana Kuykendall, 36, gave birth to healthy twins at an Atlanta hospital last week. Days later, she was back in the hospital battling a different version of the bug. Doctors think the childbirth may have left her with a cut or bruise deep enough to let the infection in.

It is a story all too familiar to Jennifer Thomas of Raleigh.

In 2009, Thomas took her son to the park. She chased him through some shrubs and a stream, and she scraped her ankle. Within days, it had turned black.

"I thought I had gangrene," she said. "This was not good."

Thomas said there are about three weeks of blank in her memory. For two of those weeks, she was in a medically induced coma.

Before a second round of surgery, her husband Dave remembers a doctor saying, "Mrs. Thomas is very, very ill."

"Are you trying to tell me that my wife is going to die," he asked.

Jennifer Thomas estimates her odds of survival were about 40 percent. But survive she did. She had a series of skin grafts and more than a year of physical therapy. 

She called the reports of other women with necrotizing fasciitis, or flesh-eating bacteria syndrome, heart-breaking. She knows what they face on the road to recovery.

"What she has to go through, what she's currently going through and what she has to go through when she gets home," Thomas said.

And she wants to offer a glimmer of hope to Copeland, Kuykendall and their families. "There are people that do survive this. There are people that survive this and don't lose their limbs," Thomas said.

Thomas and her husband are meeting with a group of those survivors next month in London. Doctors say about 750 people get infected with flesh-eating bacteria in the United States each year.