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HEALTH MATTERS: A case of diarrhea that almost turned deadly

Thanksgiving is a great time to reflect on the year’s blessings, reconnect with family, share a big meal and sometimes get indigestion. Often times, the overindulgence of a variety of foods may cause an upset stomach or stomach bug.

To be blunt, the rapid expansion of the stomach and foods rich in creams, sugar, and fat can cause gas, bloating and diarrhea. In most cases, the stomach discomfort is temporary and, with over-the-counter medicine, the symptoms are gone.

When should you be concerned, if the usual remedies are ineffective to control diarrhea?

One of the answers is when the pain from diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever is so severe that it lands you in the emergency room. In Veronica “Raunnie” Edmond’s case, she was already hospitalized during her second round of chemotherapy for an aggressive form of stage 3 breast cancer.

The 54-year-old, native of Fayetteville, Georgia, experienced watery or loose diarrhea, which eventually led to a loss of bowel control.

“Never in my life had I ever been so embarrassed and ashamed,” Edmond said. “When I thought I had to go, I would jump out of my bed and make a dash to the portable toilet just inches from my bed, only to realize it was too late.”

To avoid those mishaps, Edmond had to resort to adult diapers, more fashionably called “Depends.” “If there was any ounce of pride left in my body, the diaper got rid of it for me,” she said.

She was eventually diagnosed with a Clostridium difficile – or C. diff.

“I was fighting for my life facing cancer and had never heard of C. diff. My doctors were baffled by the severity and said I had the worst case they had ever seen,” Edmond said.

Known as a “superbug,” C. difficile causes an inflammation of the colon and deadly diarrhea. People who have weakened immune systems, including the elderly and those taking high-powered chemotherapy like Edmond, are at a higher risk of having the infection take hold.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study in February 2015 stating that nearly half a million Americans suffer from C. diff. infections in a year.  Nearly 29,000 patients died within 30 days of the initial diagnosis of C. difficile. More than 80 percent of the deaths related to C. difficile are Americans aged 65 years or older.

The CDC also reported that about 15,000 deaths were estimated to be directly attributable to C. difficile infections, making it an important cause of infectious disease death in the United States. It is classified as an “urgent” threat because of its resistance to treatment with antibiotics.

November is C. diff Awareness Month to remind us that resilient bacteria live and thrive, especially in healthcare settings, for as long as three months on hard surfaces. C. diff infection is highly infectious.

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To help prevent the spread of C. diff at home, work, or public places, remember to implement good hand hygiene by washing hands with soap for 20 seconds or longer, especially after touching door handles, shaking hands, pushing a shopping cart or using public restrooms.

Because of her symptoms and the severity, Edmond was quickly diagnosed. She was quarantined at the end of a hallway with a yellow sign on her door that read, “Quarantine – Contagious Disease” warning the hospital staff that she was highly contagious.

Providers needed to suit up in protective clothing from head-to-toe to enter her room. “I remember thinking, if the cancer and chemo don’t kill me, this C. diff infection might,” Edmond.

“I had no idea that I was going to be in the room for almost a month,” she said. Raunnie and her husband, who was also ill during this time, made the painful decision that he would not visit.

“We decided that it wasn’t worth the risk of infection. We stayed in touch through the nurse,” she continued.  “It was very lonely and depressing. I was fed through a tube and lost lots of weight.”

Edmond was given antibiotics that didn’t work. The CDC reports that antibiotic-resistant bacteria annually cause a minimum of 2 million illnesses and 23,000 deaths in the United States.

A colonoscopy, where parts of her colon would be removed, was being considered as a possible treatment, a move that Edmond vehemently opposed.

“C. difficile infections cause immense suffering and death for thousands of Americans each year,” said Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “These infections can be prevented by improving antibiotic prescribing and by improving infection control in the health care system.

“CDC hopes to ramp up prevention of this deadly infection by supporting state antibiotic resistance prevention programs in all 50 states.”

Another experience stands out in Edmond’s ordeal.  Around 3 a.m., a physician, who has since retired, offered to help. He asked for her permission to try another therapy, and admittedly bewildered, Edmond agreed. A few hours later, nurses brought in a treatment that looked like “cough syrup.” The medication worked.

After her infection was cured, it took about four months before she was strong enough to be considered for radiation and breast reconstruction.  “Thankfully, the first two rounds had slowed the tumor enough to where the cancer could be treated with surgery and radiation,” she said.

Edmond credits her faith and prayer for helping her cope with the fear, loneliness and isolation that the infection caused and the care of a kind and compassionate nurse. Edmond was in her hospital room for 27 days, lying in a fetal position and enduring the pain, fatigue and loss of bowel function, an experience she describes as “horrific.”

After a year and a half, she was able to return to work and life.

“Looking back, I’m so grateful. Not only am I changed person, but this experience has completely changed my perspective about life. I have such gratitude for life, and can say that I truly appreciate the little things,” she said.

Neither Edmond’s C. diff infection, nor her cancer, has returned. She credits her recovery to a clean diet and lifestyle. “I promote total body nourishment through nutrition and self-care,” she said.

To learn more about her journey, she published a book, “My Glorious Opposite – the Other Side of Breast Cancer,” which includes her C. diff ordeal. 

Resources: 

C Diff Foundation, https://cdifffoundation.org.

U.S. Nationwide information Hot-Line (1-844-FOR-CDIF)

Mayo Clinic – www.mayoclinic.org

CDC – www.cdc.gov

MarieLemelle2016

Marie Y. Lemelle, MBA, a public relations consultant, is the owner of Platinum Star PR and can be reached on Twitter @PlatinumStar, or Instagram @PlatinumStarPR. Send “Health Matters” related questions to healthmatters@wavepublication.com and look for her column in The Wave.