I caught MRSA, the now-notorious antibiotic-resistant “superbug,” in 2004. At 17 years old and generally healthy, I wasn’t a typical patient, especially at the time, when it had only barely begun to leak into the general population. It’s most likely that I caught it because my parents– both medical experts who worked in a hospital– had silently carried the bug home on their clothes or skin. I probably nicked myself invisibly with a razor, and seeing an opportunity to grow, the MRSA made itself at home under my arm.
It started as a tiny sore, no more significant than a pimple, but over the course of a few weeks, it grew into an extremely painful boil. I brought it to my parents’ attention (much to my own adolescent embarrassment) and scheduled an appointment with a dermatologist, who happened to be a close family friend.
“This is probably some kind of staph,” she said casually, injecting me with lidocaine needles and cutting through my skin while I looked away and flinched at the sound. She scolded me for waiting so long to make an appointment, saying that the infection might not have gotten that deep or that painful if I’d just gotten an antibiotic prescription when it first showed up. Once she was finished working and my underarm was a numb knot of gauze and bandages, she said, “I’ve got a feeling about this, so I’m not going to prescribe anything until I’ve gotten the culture back. Let your parents know I’ll call them in a couple of days, okay?”
A few days later, I heard my mother answer the phone and say, “MRSA? Really? MRSA in a seventeen-year-old. Well, I’ll be.” They exchanged a few niceties and my mother later recounted the conversation to my stepfather over dinner, talking about the results of the test as a medical curiosity. It’s getting out there now, they said. This is getting scary. More and more patients showing up with MRSA who don’t have any risk factors.
“What’s MRSA?” I asked.
“Antibiotic-resistant staph,” my parents said, “It doesn’t respond to normal antibiotics. We used to only see it in the ICU and in prisoners, but now it’s getting people like… well, like you.”
“So what do you do about it?”
“This strong anitbiotic called Vancomycin. MRSA isn’t resistant to every antibiotic. Yet, anyway. We’ll get you some tomorrow morning and keep everything clean, and this will be the end of it.”
Unfortunately, it wasn’t the end of it, even as young and healthy as I was. I still had to fight MRSA for another year. I took the Vancomycin– begrudgingly, because it made me feel sick and I was a stubborn teenager– and did everything I was told to do. The infection still sprang back just weeks later, presenting as a painful boil in the same place as before. Again, I had to have it lanced, drained, and packed, and again, I was given a Vancomycin to treat the infection.
Not once, but many more times. It began to feel like torturously painful déjà vu. The infection kept recurring, and recurring, and recurring, no matter how many times I got treatment for it. On Christmas Eve of 2004, I was visiting family out of town and doing my best to mask the amount of pain I was in. Unable to sleep and driven to tears that night, I ended up driving myself to the emergency room, which was dead-quiet at three a.m. on Christmas Eve. I have never in my life been so glad to see a needle-the lidocaine was like a godsend.
“I think I’m probably supposed to tell you it’s MRSA,” I told the emergency room doctor, “So… no penicillin, or whatever.”
He shook his head, “You’ve got family working in medicine?”
“Yeah,” I said, “Both of my parents. This is… I’ve lost count. I think the fifth, maybe sixth time I’ve had this done. The only time I’ve gone to the E.R., though. I didn’t mean to be melodramatic but it hurt.”
“I bet it did. That boil was nearly the size of a baseball; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one quite that bad. I’d prescribe you some antibiotics, but they’re not going to work. Follow up when you get back home, okay?”
There was still no end to it. Many months and several treatments later, I was starting to give up. When you’re a teenager, being instructed, “Don’t shave,” and “Don’t wear sleeveless shirts,” seems like the end of the world, especially when your senior prom is fast approaching and an entire year of your life has been consumed by one painful infection that was supposed to be no big deal. Finally, help came in the form of an extremely unlikely source: emu oil.
The dermatologist who had first treated me referred me to an eccentric doctor in another practice. He had started using emu oil to help patients with recurrent skin infections like mine. As he explained to me, emu oil itself does nothing to combat skin infections. However, when mixed with antibiotics, it delivers the medicine directly to the site of the infection, killing the bacteria exactly where it’s growing. It also had fewer side effects because it didn’t need to travel through the digestive system, the way antibiotic pills do. He lanced and drained the infection and sent me home with a bottle of his in-house-compounded concoction of emu oil and Vancomycin. I thought he might be crazy. I also knew that I was willing to try anything.
Much to my amazement and relief, that was finally the end of my MRSA “adventure,” over a year after its start. And, although I have more than my fair share of incision scars, I was one of the lucky people who survived it with no lasting damage. In young, healthy people, even a year of MRSA can have a happy ending. But, had I been much older, or had chronic health problems, or had been unable to get access to medical care, it might have been only a matter of time before the “superbug” had spread elsewhere in my body and caused life-threatening complications.
Today, ten years after my unpleasant run-in with the superbug, MRSA is so common that it no longer raises eyebrows and alarm when it appears in healthy people. It is well on its way to becoming the pandemic that doctors have long feared it could be, and it’s not just the old and the weak who are in its path of destruction.
The main advice that I would give to other people with MRSA is to treat the infection promptly and seriously. The gamble of “see if it gets better on its own” isn’t one that can be taken with MRSA, and I could have saved myself a lot of suffering had I gotten more prompt treatment. I would also advise patients to truly follow their doctors’ instructions, no matter how inconvenient they may be. I’m sorry to say that this is where I failed, because I let teenage vanity keep me from consistently following the advice, “Don’t shave your underarms, even if you seem better,” and kept opening myself to the recurrence of the infection. Many people with MRSA also don’t finish their full course of antibiotics, which is dangerous with any infection, but particularly serious with MRSA because half-finished antibiotics contribute to the evolution of VRSA (a strain of MRSA that doesn’t respond even to the most powerful drugs). The experience of fighting MRSA isn’t one that anyone should have to go through, especially not as a recurrent problem. We need to be doing everything in our power to stop, or at least slow, the spread of this pandemic and the effect is has on lives.