The bug that ate me

My little nip proved a massive pain...

Published by: Johanna Burrows and Fiona Ford
Published on: 13th July 2010

As the lights flashed and the music blared, I danced to the beat. It was Friday night and I was out with my pals. Glancing at my watch, I realised it was past midnight.
‘Time to go before I turn into a pumpkin,’ I joked. ‘Or I’m just plain too exhausted for work.’
I’d been working as a hairdresser for a month and I was desperate to make a good impression. After all, I’d wanted to be one for as long as I could remember.
As a kid, I was forever messing with my mum Julie’s hair. ‘Get off,’ she’d chuckle as I rubbed mousse into her locks before styling them into elaborate dos.
So when I was offered an apprenticeship at my local salon, I was chuffed. ‘You’ll just be shampooing and folding towels at first,’ my boss had warned.
‘That’s fine,’ I’d smiled.
My hard work paid off, though. After my apprenticeship, I became a colour technician.
The morning after my night out, I set about mixing colours. Suddenly, I felt a sharp pain in my left leg.
‘Ouch!’ I winced.
‘You okay?’ a colleague asked.
‘Fine,’ I replied, looking down. ‘Something’s bitten me, that’s all.’
‘It’s that time of the year,’ she sympathised with me.
‘I’m going to rub some antiseptic cream into it,’ I sighed, heading for the staff room. ‘It’s tingling a bit.’
By home time, my leg was really sore and sported a purple bruise.
‘What’s that?’ Mum, 43, asked when I got home.
‘Just a bite,’ I shrugged, heading upstairs to get ready for a night out.
But by 10pm I had to quit the dance floor. ‘I’m going home,’ I told my friends.
By now the purple bruise had increased to the size of a Jammy Dodger, but was far less appealing.
The skin around it was red, swollen and burning up. My whole leg throbbed, and the itching… oh, the itching. I would have gone at it with a sander if I thought it would have stopped it.
But, over the next few days, no amount of antiseptic cream helped – the bite only got bigger and more painful.
Yet when the pus-filled head finally fell off two days later…
‘Th-there’s a hole in my leg!’ I cried to Mum.
I peered closer, and gagged in disgust. ‘I can see…there’s my…’
I couldn’t speak, though. Instead I was trying not to be sick because, at the centre of the bloody, scabby mess, was a hole the size of a penny through which I could see all the way to my leg bone!
‘We’re going to hospital now,’ Mum insisted.
On the way to Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Gateshead we had to drive with the window open, because the stench from my leg was stomach turning – like a mix of rotten eggs and mouldy fruit.
‘It’s an insect bite, that’s all,’ the doctor assured me.
‘But how could a tiny horsefly
do this?’ I wailed.
‘Looks like you’ve had an allergic reaction,’ he added. ‘We’ll give you antibiotics and dress the wound.’
The dressing would need changing in a week but, over the next seven days, the bite grew worse.
Soon I was in so much pain, I could hardly stand at work and I had to take time off. I’d been so desperate to do well, but the pain got the better of me.
By the time I got my dressing changed, the whole of my lower leg had swollen to twice its normal size.
Maybe it had to get worse before it got better?
As the nurse removed the bandage, though, nausea washed over me.
The hole in my leg was bigger now, the size of a two pence piece.
And worse, the skin around it was raw and mushy, as though the layers were peeling away in chunks.
‘What’s happening?’ I begged.
Concerned, doctors took a swab and ran tests.
Yet nothing could have prepared me for the diagnosis.
‘Your skin’s reacted to whatever bit you,’ the doctor explained.
‘So more antibiotics should help?’ I asked.
‘Except now there’s a flesh-eating bug attacking your leg too,’ the doctor added.
‘A flesh eating what…?!’ I gulped, my mind in overdrive.
Didn’t people who went on foreign holidays get flesh-eating bugs? The furthest I’d been lately was Blackpool, not Barbados.
Besides, I read the papers. People died or needed their limbs chopped off thanks to these bugs.
How could this be happening to me?
‘Surely there’s some mistake?’ I cried.
But the doctor shook his head. ‘It’s a flesh-eating bug,’ he said. ‘But antibiotics and regular bandage changes will sort it out, don’t worry.’
As the weeks passed, though, it got worse. Saturday nights on the dance floor became a thing of the past. Instead, all I could do was lie on the sofa, popping painkillers.
Things didn’t even ease up when I was asleep. I started having nightmares where my whole body was being eaten up, until all that was left was my head, and I’d wake up, sweating and shaking.
‘I’m losing it,’ I told Mum. ‘Will it ever get better?’
‘Course it will, love,’ she said.
Finally, last December, a skin specialist discovered I was allergic to my bandages.
Six and a half months after being bitten, the hole in my leg was now six inches wide. The skin around it looked like rotting rashers of bacon, and the slightest touch caused watery pus to ooze from the centre.
Yet, with new bandages, I started to see an improvement.
The swelling began to go down and I wasn’t in as much pain, but it came too late to save my job.
It wasn’t all bad news. ‘We can do a skin graft to fix the hole in your leg,’ doctors said. I dared to hope the end of my suffering was in sight.
But it wasn’t long before my leg started burning with pain again, and then the doctors dropped another bombshell.
Another flesh-eating bug was feasting on me!
‘I can’t take any more,’ I sobbed to Mum. Pulling me into her arms, she held me close. ‘We’ll get you through this,’ she promised.
And she was right. After seven months, I’m finally on the mend.
Now, I’m looking for another hairdressing job and to spend my weekends dancing with my pals like I used to.
Unbelievably, doctors say all that will be left of my flesh-eating bug attacks is a tiny scratch.
I’m determined from now on, though, that the only bug I’m getting bitten by is the hairdressing one!
Dionne Southern, 19, Gateshead, Tyne and Wear