When Ruth Dodge was told that emergency surgery was necessary to save her right leg, let alone her life, from the world’s most dangerous form of flesh-eating bacteria, her first thought was the smile of someone not yet a part of the world, and her desire to witness it.
“This is early October and I told Dr. Brady right before the surgery, ‘I need to be healthy enough to fly out to see my granddaughter in California by the end of the month,’ Ms. Dodge said last week. “I wanted to so badly see my newest baby, my ninth grandchild Sophia.”
In early September, Ms. Dodge and her husband Ken went on a three week trip for their 10 year wedding anniversary, the first stop being Fiji.
While waiting for their baggage after exiting a ferry, a sudden rainstorm drove a mad rush of people toward Ms. Dodge, knocking her over and causing her to cut her toe significantly on a metal grate.
“I cleaned it quick, but it didn’t even hurt until we were in Hawaii,” Ms. Dodge said. “It was a nothing cut. It happens.”
After four great days in the aloha state, snorkeling and taking in the sun, the couple went to San Francisco, checking out the Golden Gate Bridge, abandoned bunkers and a black sand beach, all in a day.
“You walk everywhere in San Francisco. The toe hurt, but I thought if anything I broke my toe, not that it was infected,” she said. “I waded out into the water at that beach because the toe was 90 percent healed. If anything, salt water helps.”
But the salt water didn’t help this day for Ms. Dodge, as this is where she and Dr. James Brady of Southampton Hospital predict the cut was infected with a strain of necrotizing fasciitis called streptococcus—a strain Dr. Brady said is “the worst of the flesh-eating bacteria. It’s the ‘oh shit’ disease for every doctor.”
According to Dr. Brady, the streptococcus bacteria produces a toxin that causes the circulation of the skin layers to clot off, which essentially turns the tissue into food for the bacteria.
Later on that day, after she felt ill at dinner, Mr. Dodge, who is a longtime East End physician’s assistant, brought his wife back to the hotel with a fever of 102. Mr. Dodge gave her a strong general antibiotic, but an hour later, his wife awoke with a sharp pain in her leg.
All the way up her leg, about eight inches above her knee, Ms. Dodge had obvious signs of lymphadenitis, a red swelling that indicates a severe infection.
Her husband immediately gave Ms. Dodge a stronger antibiotic, but to no avail, because by the next day, the former EMT and current 911 dispatcher was unable to even walk through the airport.
When home, Mr. Dodge consulted with a colleague, Dr. Anthony Knott, who began giving Mrs. Dodge antibiotic shots directly into the compromised toe for four straight days.
The pain had subsided, but the swelling had not.
“The toe had a weird look to it, kind of like it was dying,” recalled Ms. Dodge. “Dr. Knott called Dr. Brady, who met us ASAP at the Emergency Room. Dr. Brady wanted to wait six hours before the surgery, because I ate a doughnut, but 10 minutes later, he stormed through the doors and said, ‘let’s go, you’re having a spinal, we’re going in right away.’”
Dr. Brady would later say that the toe looked infected, but not too out of the ordinary.
He was unable to diagnose the infection until a biopsy though, and because of his experience with about a dozen cases of necrotizing fasciitis and knowing the worst case scenario, aggressive surgery to scrape out all the toe’s tissue, leaving only nerves and bone, became the only option.
“I’ve had people lose a lot of tissue to this disease. Ruth was lucky,” Dr. Brady said. “One more day of this and she could’ve had multi-organ failure. The fact that Ken and Dr. Knott had the good sense to give her strong antibiotics right away … I think she could’ve lost her leg, lost her life, if not for that.”
After the surgery, Ms. Dodge was put right in one of the hospital’s state-of-the-art hyperbaric chambers, spurring regeneration of white blood cells in the toe. After just three weekend sessions, Ms. Dodge went from borderline septic and dangerously ill to good as new, sporting only a limp and some bandages that had to be changed twice a day for three weeks.
Asked what people should take away from her story, Dr. Brady said knowledge is power.
“When people hear about flesh eating bacteria, they only hear about the disaster cases,” he said. “This can have a great outcome if people know what they’re doing and facilities are prepared to do what is needed. Disasters happen when you are in a place with poor medical care or if you don’t act fast enough yourself. I can do everything right, but it comes down to timing.”
Nowadays, Ms. Dodge still walks with a slight limp but doesn’t let it stop her from getting in the holiday spirit, decorating her house and shopping for an ever-growing family.
And as for seeing that granddaughter Sophia, who was born in San Diego on October 22?
“Low and behold, Dr. Brady and the staff at the hospital got me healthy enough to fly out November 2 to see her,” Ms. Dodge said with a smile as she flipped through her phone. “When I got there, I sent Dr. Brady this.”
It was a picture of her, holding Sophia, with a simple caption: “thank you.”