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Flesh-eating bacteria mom going home to see twins

3:20 PM, Jul 17, 2012   |    comments
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The paramedic who contracted a flesh-eating bacteria after giving birth to twins is finally going home to her babies after more than two months in the hospital, much of which she mercifully doesn't remember.

"I'm just very grateful to be alive," a smiling Lana Kuykendall said Monday, still weak and tired from fighting the dangerous infection that nearly took her life.

"I should be able to get around at home with a walker," she said, speaking publically for the first time. "But I won't be running any races soon."

Kuykendall's terrifying journey began with the births of Abigail and Ian on May 7 at an Atlanta hospital. The delivery was normal and her babies were healthy, though Lana needed blood, according to her husband, Darren.

But after returning to their home in Piedmont, she discovered a strange lesion on her left thigh. It wasn't really painful. But she suspected it was a blood clot - a potentially serious complication that can occur in childbirth.

"It just looked kind of like discolored skin, sort of like a bruise," Lana, 36, recalls. "I thought it was a blood clot in a vein and I knew that was something you shouldn't mess around with."

With their twins not yet a week old, she and Darren, a firefighter she met at the scene of an accident, headed for the emergency room at Greenville Memorial.

"I was initially disappointed that we had to go back to a hospital. But when I got there...I was feeling a lot sicker all over. And I knew it was bad," she said. "It never crossed my mind that it would be something like this."

Doctors quickly realized that Lana had necrotizing fasciitis, a fierce bacterial infection that strikes between 550 and 1,000 people a year, killing one in four of them, and often resulting in multiple amputations for those who survive, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"It's a bacterial infection of skin, soft tissue and muscle which can spread very rapidly," said Dr. Bill Kelly, epidemiologist for Greenville Hospital System, adding it's unlikely the source of the infection will ever be known.

"It can be caused by a number of bacteria, in her case, Group A strep, the same bacteria that causes Strep throat," he said. "And that accounted for the fever, low blood pressure and multi-organ failures that we saw."

Necrotizing fasciitis occurs when bacteria enter the body and emit toxins that destroy the soft tissue, which dies and must be removed. Lana needed immediate surgery to save her life.

"These flesh-eating bacteria grow so fast you can actually see the skin change in front of your eyes," said Dr. Spence Taylor, a vascular surgeon and vice president for academics at GHS. "(Staff) recognized that immediately and took her to surgery."

Lana endured at least 18 procedures to excise bacteria and dead tissue from her legs, though she was spared amputations, he said. She had other operations, too, to put in a breathing tube and a feeding tube, as well as at least three reconstructive skin grafts, he said. And she spent 38 days in intensive care, being cared for by 70 doctors and 150 nurses and other allied health professionals, he said.

On eight occasions, she was cocooned in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, which promotes healing by "super-oxygenating" the blood, said pulmonologist Dr. John Kudlak. It reduces amputations from a rate of 75 percent to about 25 percent, he said, and the mortality rate from 60 percent to 25 percent.

Given how painful it all was, Lana says it's a blessing that most of it is a blank.

"I remember the birth and coming home with them and coming to the hospital. And I knew I was going to surgery," she said. "But I don't remember anything after that until I was out of the ICU."

Through it all, Darren, 42, has been by her side, terrified about the possible outcomes, but praying she would make it.

"It seemed like one step forward and two steps back sometimes. She went into the OR a lot," he remembers. "I'm just so grateful that she is still with me because it was very, very scary, very stressful there for a good while."

Lana not only pulled through, her progress has amazed her caregivers. After a few weeks, she was able to spend time with the precious babies whose first two months of life she lost.

"I wanted to hold them and get to know them," she said. "They weren't newborns anymore."

On June 21, still too weak to stand on her own, she was transferred to Roger C. Peace Rehabilitation Hospital, said medical director Dr. Kevin Kopera.

"She wanted the most aggressive therapy and when I looked at her in the beginning, I wasn't sure she'd be able to do it," he said. "But she did very well. It took a lot of blood, sweat and tears - literally. But now she's walking 250 feet plus and she's able to care for herself and provide care for Ian and Abigail."

She walks, climbs stairs and lifts light weights to strengthen muscles weakened by multiple operations and months of being bedridden. It was tough at first. Now it's a job she does to get home to her husband and babies.

"At times, I'm able to focus on the fact that the best thing for them is for me to get better," she said. "And at times, I just break down and cry."

The Kuykendalls say they are grateful to God, the medical staff, the family and friends who supported them and cared for the twins, their fellow first responders who held fundraisers and blood drives, and even the strangers who offered words of comfort from afar.

And though she's going home this week, Lana still has months of rehab ahead of her, but doctors are optimistic about her future.

"I have my moments of pain and discomfort, and I'm a lot more tired and weaker than I used to be," she said. "But I'm also getting stronger every day. I want to get back to work and to being a mom how I envisioned it."

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