Texas woman finds cure in Oklahoma for infection that almost killed her

Michele Thomas, 62, of Richmond, Texas, acquired Clostridium difficile while she was being treated for injuries suffered in a car accident. She received a simple treatment in Oklahoma City after suffering for months with the infection.
by Jaclyn Cosgrove Published: June 30, 2012

One of the few things Michele Thomas remembers during her three-month stint in the hospital is a vivid dream of her own wake.

She was in a casket, and all of her friends and family were standing around it.

The dream was likely caused by a mixture of two things: While she was in the hospital, family members from California, Hawaii, Washington and every other corner of the world came to say what they thought would be their last words to her. Secondly, Thomas was fighting for her life, with several drugs pulsing through her body, causing her to hallucinate and come in and out of consciousness.

In short, Thomas almost died.

Thomas' body was being attacked by Clostridium difficile, a health care-associated infection that people catch primarily in hospitals and other health facilities.

And if it weren't for a procedure known as a fecal microbiota transplant that she received at an Oklahoma City hospital, she probably would have died, Thomas said.

“And I live in Houston, Texas, supposedly one of the medical capitals of the world,” the 62-year-old Texan said during a telephone interview from her Texas home. “They come in everywhere to get treatment, yet nobody here would do it.”

Thomas isn't sure where she acquired Clostridium difficile, also known as C-diff. It was either while she was in the hospital after a car accident or at a nursing center where she was being rehabilitated from the accident.

Increase in infections

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that although most health care-associated infections are declining, C-diff infections continue to increase.

From 2001-11, the number of cases of C-diff in the U.S. increased from 150,000 to 500,000, according to the CDC. C-Diff causes diarrhea linked to 14,000 American deaths each year.

C-Diff has been around for several years. One reason for its increase might be frequent, and sometimes unnecessarily high, use of antibiotics in hospital settings.

Additionally, a new strain of C-diff, first identified in Canada, has spread to every state in the U.S., said Dr. Mark Mellow, medical director at Integris Digestive Health Center.

When someone gets C-Diff, they have a 90 percent chance of being cured, Mellow said.

The infection can usually be treated with an appropriate course of antibiotics, including metronidazole, vancomycin or fidaxomicin, according to the CDC.

However, about 15 to 25 percent of people will have a recurrence. And if they have a recurrence, they have a 40 to 50 percent chance of having multiple recurrences, Mellow said.

“And it's under that circumstance, which leads to ongoing debility, further weakness and further illness, that the fecal microbiota transplant becomes a really valuable additional treatment modality,” Mellow said.

The fecal transplant isn't recommended for all patients, in part because it's intrusive, and also because the infection can be treated without procedure by certain antibiotics.

Mellow and his colleagues at four other medical facilities recently led a multicenter study with long-term data to determine how effective fecal transplants were in treating patients like Thomas who had recurring C-diff.

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by Jaclyn Cosgrove
Medical and Health Reporter
Jaclyn Cosgrove writes about health, medicine and fitness, among other things. She graduated from Oklahoma State University with a news-editorial and broadcast production degree. Outside of work, she enjoys riding her bike, taking pictures of...
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