The infection started innocently enough — a headache, sore throat, earache and body pains — but days later, a worrisome bruise suddenly appeared on Winnipeg resident Cari Kirkness’s arm.
Kirkness went to a walk-in clinic in Winnipeg after three days of feeling ill with the flu-like symptoms.
She received a throat swab but the doctor told her to “ride it out,” said Kirkness.
Cari Kirkness’s arm before it was amputated for flesh-eating disease. (courtesy Cari Kirkness)
The next day her mother decided to take her daughter to Victoria General Hospital’s emergency room.
“My whole arm was red and purple,” she said. “It just got worse overnight.”
There the family waited for six hours for Kirkness to see a doctor. The 28-year-old was in agony the entire time — one of flesh-eating disease’s key symptoms is excruciating pain.
After staff diagnosed her with the invasive streptococcal infection necrotizing fasciitis, a.k.a flesh-eating disease, they rushed her to Health Sciences Centre where a team was assembled to address her condition.
“It was scary but I tried putting on a brave face,” Kirkness said. “I was keeping myself calm.”
She was greeted by more than a dozen staff members and swept away for assessments after arriving at HSC. Her mom sat in the waiting room and recited the Lord’s Prayer.
During the first surgery, doctors removed her right arm and bottom half of her left leg, where the flesh-eating bacteria had also begun to fester. After the surgery Kirkness’s organs began to shut down and she was put on life support.
“It was just horrible to see my mom … she had a swollen face,” said Chaz Kirkness, her 11-year-old son.
The dire news spread to family in The Pas who came to Winnipeg to support her mother, Loretta Kirkness.
“They said they didn’t expect her to survive that night,” Loretta said.
The next day doctors became concerned her daughter’s remaining leg showed signs of infection.
They asked if she wanted to amputate the other leg or just “let her go,” Loretta remembers.
“There was no decision, we said, ‘No, amputate that leg … we choose life. We don’t want her to go.'”
Manitoba sees 12-20 flesh-eating infections a year
Kirkness said she understands now a strep throat infection led to the flesh-eating disease.
Both infections are caused by the same group A streptococcus bacteria.
“It’s the strain type that determines what ultimately happens,” said Dr. John Embil, medical director of the infection prevention and control unit at Health Sciences Centre. “The problem is we don’t know what strain it is until long after the fact.”
In Ontario, an 11-year-old girl lost two limbs and nearly died earlier this year after her group A streptococcus infection was mistaken for the flu.
After the girl’s story was told by CBC, two other families came forward saying their child’s serious infection went undiagnosed before the infection became life threatening.
Every year in Manitoba there are about 12 to 20 cases of flesh-eating disease, said Embil.
Kirkness with her two sons, Andrew, left, and Chaz. (Courtesy Cari Kirkness)
While extremely rare, anyone can develop the potentially life-threatening infection.
Now, more than a month after the operations, Kirkness is still recovering in hospital but hopes to be transferred to a rehabilitation facility soon where she can strengthen her remaining arm and neck.
After weeks in bed, she is so weak that her neck can’t support her head.
Still, propped up by pillows, she laughs freely and credits her family — especially her two sons — for getting her through the ordeal that nearly ended her life.
“I have a bunch of supporters coming in and out. I’m never alone in this room,” she says laughing.
Loretta said the family will be there to help her daughter adjust to a new life.
“I look at her and I’m just so amazed,” she said. “She’s my inspiration.”