'I almost left here' says Highland Park woman who contracted flesh-eating bacteria
Toye Starver went to the emergency room as a precaution.
Twenty minutes later, medical personnel were prepping her for surgery.
She remembers nurses wheeling her into a preoperative area. She remembers the room being very cold. She remembers waking up five days later with bandages covering her left hip, pelvis and upper leg.
“I was still in intensive care and I remember people coming in and out and saying that I was a miracle,” said Starver, 54, of Highland Park. “I was thinking, ‘What are they talking about?' Nobody had really talked to me about the deadliness of what I had gotten.”
Starver had necrotizing fasciitis, also known as flesh-eating bacteria.
A rare bacterial infection that afflicts 650 to 800 people in the U.S. a year, it spreads quickly and kills one in four people who contract it. The bacteria enter the body through an opening in the skin — a cut, perhaps, or even a bug bite — then rapidly destroys skin, fat and muscle tissue.
The only way to get rid of it is to cut away the affected areas. Many patients with necrotizing fasciitis who survive require multiple amputations.
“I looked it up (on a laptop) in the hospital and almost fell out of the bed,” Starver said. “I began to look at the photos of what people's bodies look like when they have necrotizing fasciitis. It wasn't pretty.”
In 2012, Georgia graduate student Aimee Copeland contracted necrotizing fasciitis after falling from a zip line and cutting her leg. Doctors had to amputate her hands, a leg and a foot.
In 2013, New Zealander Rick Teal noticed a pain in his foot and, two days later, lost a portion of his lower leg after doctors discovered he had the flesh-eating bacteria.
Starver kept her limbs.
But when she awoke in the hospital after two surgeries, she found doctors had cut chunks of flesh from her torso and upper leg. A hole in her hip was several inches deep.
“We all think we have a great appreciation for life, but until you're faced with death yourself ...” she said. “I almost left here. My brush with death let me know that if I make it through this, there's so much more that I'd like to do.”
Starver is a staffer with the AIDS Coalition in Homewood and Central Outreach drug rehab services in the Hill District. She regularly works “in homeless shelters and under the bridge and in and out of crack houses,” she said. Doctors said she could have contracted the bacteria in any of those unsanitary locations.
She does not know why she survived when so many others did not. She does not know why she didn't feel pain when doctors told her to expect agony.
And she knows nothing of a mystery nurse who visited her once during her weeks-long stay in the hospital.
Starver was three days removed from intensive care when the nurse entered her room to change her bandages. She was beautiful, Starver recalled.
“She told me everything is going to be OK, that she was sorry I had to go through this because being open and exposed and weak is hard for us, but that everything was going to work out for me,” Starver said.
“I remember thinking, ‘wow — most of the nurses are pretty busy doing the bandages and they don't have time to talk to me, and this nurse is talking to me. This is so soothing. It's amazing.'”
Starver's regular nurse arrived shortly after.
She, too, had no idea who the other nurse was.
“Maybe she was an angel or something. I don't know. (But) I do know that I always had a great peace that everything was going to be OK. And it was.”