How a paper cut left a woman with a debilitating injury

WARNING – GRAPHIC CONTENT: A paper cut on a woman’s finger almost killed her after she contracted a flesh-eating disease that caused her body to shut down. 

In December 2017, self-employed independent paparazzi consultant Heather Harbottle, from Hawaii, woke up abruptly after a rough night with progressing hand pain. 

The 49-year-old had just moved to a new house at the time and her family were unloading the boxes when she noticed her finger cut was infected and began to swell. 

“I was thinking it was a sprain or dislocation of my pinky. But between my pinky and ring finger was a cut so, I thought in the move I must have hit it or something,” Ms Harbottle said.

“I stayed home to rest while everyone else made the four-hour round trip for another load during the move. The cut on my finger was already showing an infection and my hand was now beginning to swell.

Heather Harbottle is seen in hospital while battling the infection. Source: Australscope

That night Ms Harbottle began to suffer from a fever and any movement of her hand was excruciating, so at 5am the next morning, her family drove her more than two hours to Hilo Medical Centre.

Doctors quickly diagnosed her with a staphylococcus bacterial infection, which had spread to her blood and developed into sepsis. 

“It was already in my blood, so it was now sepsis. My kidneys were failing. The infection was already spreading to my elbow travelling to the heart,” she said. 

“I was in such a state that my body was so ill and shutting down and the infection was so bad that after being wheeled into emergency I remember very little until I woke up in ICU (intensive care unit).”

Doctors prescribed her antibiotics after diagnosing the 49-year-old with necrotising fasciitis, commonly known as “flesh-eating bacteria”.

“I had just come close to death and was now facing possible amputation if the infection was too strong. The bacteria had already eaten through to my tendons and has now reached my armpit,” she said. 

Ms Harbottle's hand is seen after surgery. Source: Australscope

“At this point everything sets in. I’m in a serious situation and I’m far from being out of danger. Being strong was the only option. But emotionally and mentally I suffered.”

Ms Harbottle said she then underwent a biopsy to treat the infected tissue and had a debridement every three days, which is the removal of damaged tissue or foreign objects from a wound.

Once her skin was healthier, the next stage was to undergo a skin graft, however, the vac seal was compromised and caused the bacteria to spread up her forearm and an abscess developed.

Ms Harbottle had to be airlifted to a different hospital where she had another surgery on her forearm and ring finger, where the cut initially was. 

In January 2018, she had to have a groin flap procedure, where they take a chunk of healthy tissue and insert it to the top of her hand.

The vac seal covering the 49-year-old's staph infection. Source: Australscope

While she is still in occupational therapy learning how to use her fingers again after her surgeries, she has learnt to adapt to a new normal life.

“It’s the little things; scooping change, unscrewing things etc. I also acquired a frozen shoulder so just getting dressed or putting a hair bobble in is a struggle still. But you adapt and learn a different way,” she said. 

Ms Harbottle thought she would never see her little girl again while she was fighting for her life after the flesh-eating disease had attacked her body, but despite it all she has stayed strong throughout and was able to reunite with her.

“As horrible as you have it in that moment someone else has it worse than you. Be thankful for what is,” she said.

Australscope

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