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19 May

A Story of Survival: One Woman’s Journey after a Flesh-Eating Disease

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By: Jennifer Johnson

After 30 surgeries, one woman is talking about the medical procedure that literally helped to make her whole again

There was a reunion on the third floor of Strong Memorial Hospital in April that many did not think would happen.

Many did not think patient Kate Clemont of Webster would live – including some of her doctors.

“It was very, very aggressive. I didn’t think she was going to survive,” said URMC plastic surgeon Dr. Derek Bell.

Kate is a married mom of two. She was adopted, lost her father to cancer and her son Jack has autism.

Kate coaches others through these life scenarios and has done a lot to empower the local autism community.

“The Kate that went into hospital was very confident and very independent and very capable,” Kate said. “And the Kate that came out was not the same Kate.”

July 4th, 2015:

Kate stayed in bed all day. What felt like a pulled muscle from gardening soon became much worse. The next day, she told her husband Curtis she needed to get to the hospital. He took her to Emergency Department at Strong Memorial Hospital.

“They whisked me off apparently and I don’t remember anything after that,” Kate said.

Trauma surgeon Dr. Mark Gestring and plastic surgeon Dr. Derek Bell were working that Sunday of the holiday weekend.

“Just looking at her skin condition, I looked at Mark and I was like, ‘This is bad.’ And probably within an hour she was in the operating room,” Dr. Bell said.

That skin condition was necrotizing fasciitis. It’s sometimes called “the flesh-eating disease.”

When asked how Kate got it, Dr. Gestring said they’re still not sure.

“You get cut by a branch or a bug bite or a scratch, a little rusty nail or something like that. It’s hard to know exactly where the bacterium comes from,” Dr. Gestring said. “We never did find a clear source.”

Kate had been taking an immunosuppressant for arthritis, which lowered her ability to fight infection. The infection spread very quickly.

“The infection moved at a rate you could almost watch,” Dr. Gestring said. “You could almost watch the redness spread, which is very unusual – at least for me – to see.”

Kate spent 75 days in the hospital, mostly in the Kessler Burn Center. She endured almost 30 surgeries and coded twice.

“Second time (she coded), I knew I had to fight. I was fighting for the boys, I was fighting for Curtis, so yeah, I had to fight.” Kate said.

The impact of the infection was like a large shark bite on her side. It covered from hip to armpit and across her stomach.

Once the infection was under control, skin was taken from her leg and grafted to her side. In other spots, to minimize scarring, Dr. Bell used a tissue-engineered skin that has components of shark cartilage in it.

“I think she gets a real kick out of telling people now that she is part shark,” Dr. Bell said with a laugh.

Kate and her doctors can now joke about the tough times. It’s helped her process the loss of her right hand, left index finger and ends of her toes.

“That’s what people see, they see that I lost my hand,” Kate explained. “But that was a result of the treatment, a result of the blood not getting to the extremities when they were trying to save my organs.”

“I hated them to begin with… I hated the disfigurement,” Kate said, showing her lost limbs. “But I know that’s what they had to do to save me and it’s nothing I’m ashamed of. Kind of proud of them…battle scars.”

At first, Kate wondered how a right-handed woman would create art, cook or garden without a right hand.

Would she ever again host backyard arts and crafts camps for the kids with autism she loves so dearly? Would she host paint nights as an outlet for their moms?

In time, she answered that question – yes. Her “can do” attitude returned and a desire to share this story began.

“It’s a testament to her inner strength and her personality that she wants to revisit this,” Dr. Gestring said. “Many people, having gone through an event like this don’t want to think about it ever again. So I think it’s a huge credit to her and her family that they want to do this for other people… Thankfully there is not a huge population of people who have this problem, but sadly it’s because many of them die. She had a very touch-and-go course for I’d say the first week.”

In April, Kate went back to the Kessler Burn Center to see the people who saved her life. It was special.

“For the people who never saw her beyond the ICU setting to now see her walking in on her own steam, it’s very encouraging for us to keep doing what we’re doing,” Dr. Gestring said.

Dr. Bell echoed that.

“I think she is a real inspiration to all of us physicians, nurses, healthcare providers,” he said. “You can see the crowd of nurses out there that were culminating around her to embrace her and say hello to her again. For us, it’s a real reward to see such a success story. It makes us realize the time and effort and sacrifices that we put forth as health care professionals are certainly worth it.”

While the team raved about Kate, Curtis has the same feelings for her medical team.

Much of what happened to Kate in July, August and September of 2015 was too hard for Curtis to talk about during our interview. But when he reunited with the medical team, he made sure to tell them how he felt.

“The times that I thought there was no hope, you always provided me with that one glimmer that said, ‘Don’t worry, we are going to do everything we can. We can’t promise, but we’ll do everything we can,'” Curtis told them. “And you did.”

Now, Kate wants to do what she can to share her story, to maybe connect with or inspire others who get this disease.

“It’s gotta be good for something,” Kate said. “This can’t happen and nothing comes out of it. The doctors worked too hard. I worked too hard to let it go to waste.”

Source: Rochester, N.Y. (WHAM)

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