John Flenders knew something was severely wrong with his right pinky finger when an infection ran red up his arm toward his heart, highlighting his arteries like an aerial view of the Amazon River.
He called out of work at Adecco Engineering. The burning wouldn’t stop for more than eight hours. He couldn’t bend his finger.
It all began with a tiny cut on the pinky knuckle; it ended with the chopping off of a dead, gangrenous, black pinky up to the second knuckle.
A flesh-eating disease called Necrotizing Fasciitis infiltrated and nearly destroyed Flenders’ finger and arm in two days during the week of September 25.
Flenders, 27, believes he contracted Group A Streptococcus Pyogenes when he retrieved a football from a koi pond in a friend’s backyard in Souderton.
“I just walked up to the pond and reached my hand in the water to get the football floating on top of the water. I definitely didn't think twice,” said Flenders. “To me, I was simply getting the ball out of some water. I also didn't notice that I had a cut on my right pinky finger, which I believe I got earlier that day from retrieving the football from the bushes.”
The pain got more excruciating, and Flenders found himself in the ER of Grand View Hospital almost 48 hours later. They dosed him with morphine and discovered his white blood cell count was very high, double the average count.
By this time, his finger was black and swollen. The ER doctor drew out pus to relieve the swelling and put Flenders on several IVs of an antibiotic.
“Give this bacteria an inch, and it will take a mile,” Flenders said. “Several hundred of them.”
Flenders was ultimately admitted to Grand View. By now, his finger looked like it suffered third-degree burns.
Twenty minutes later, a doctor ordered Flenders to the operating room stat.
“It felt like a fire was burning under my skin,” he said.
The surgeon at Grand View told Flenders that in his 30-plus years experience, he had never seen a case like his escalate so quickly.
By the afternoon of September 25, Flenders had gone through a one-hour surgery. His finger was saved from amputation and the antibiotics were working, knocking down his white blood cell count down to around 16,000 in 24 hours.
On Thursday afternoon Sept. 26, Flenders was being transferred to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, renowned for its orthopedic surgery and treatment. He arrived and the surgeon there began to remove milky pus from Flenders’ gauze-stuffed filleted pinky. A specialist would later tell Flenders the pinky could be salvaged due to its healing.
“I felt very safe in the hands of the doctors at Jefferson. The infectious disease doctors also were very professional and knew exactly what the bacteria was and its effects," he said. "They made the recommendation as to the antibiotics to take once the blood culture came back positive for Streptococcus pyogenes, Group A.”
By Sept. 28, the pinky was looking healthier — Gone were the green and yellow pus and in their place were pink and red blood and flesh. He could move the pinky with only slight pain.
At the end of the week, the tip of Flenders’ pinky was dead, as the body was focusing on healing the rest of the damaged finger. He said the tip was getting blood, but it was not circulating properly.
“That's when I realized how serious this condition was,” Flenders said.
It would turn out that partial amputation over salvaging would be the best option: it is less costly, the finger would regain full functionality and the body can cope with the amputation and adapt to new uses.
Flenders said the duel was like Tyson vs. Holyfield — the bacteria knew it was going to lose, so it took a cheap shot and attacked a small part of his body that will make no difference without it.
Flenders was out of Thomas Jefferson Hospital by Oct. 1, and had outpatient surgery completed the next day at Methodist Hospital of Thomas Jefferson University in South Philadelphia.
“The bacteria goes from contagious to relentless. From the time I got infected to the time I was in the ER was no more than 36 hours — less than two days and I almost lost a limb. This bacteria is no joke,” he said.
Check out Flenders’ online album of NSFW pictures documenting his experience here:http://imgur.com/a/CuxUZ.
Today, Flenders’ stitches have healed and been removed. For the rest of his life, Flenders will have a scar and a nub to remind him of his fortune in life.
“I honestly believe that had I waited any longer, or that my condition was mishandled, I surely would have lost more than just the pinky,” he said.
He credits the doctors at Grand View Hospital and Thomas Jefferson University Hospital with saving his life and suffering only minimal damage.
“The first doctor at Grand View performed the initial surgery in a very timely
manner. He actually told me he cancelled some appointments ahead of me in order to work on my hand, because he didn't want me to go to the end of the day with the bacteria still inside me,” he said. “Had I went any longer, I could have lost the whole pinky, hand, or even arm.”
For now, Flenders will continue to follow his doctors’ advice and begin some rehab on his hand.
“I can say for certain that the bacteria typically enters the skin through an open cut or wound of some kind. I’ve learned that I am pretty fortunate to have only lost a bit of my pinky and not more,” he said. “Everywhere I went people kept reminding me about that one local woman who lost all her limbs because of the bacteria.”
Flenders also continues to educate himself, and more importantly others, on Necrotizing Fasciitis.
“I've been getting a lot of love and support from everybody who hears my story — from friends and close family, to random people on the Internet,” he said.
“Many of the comments were from people who asked how to avoid this happening to them. I've even had some friends thank me and tell me that because of my story they will be taking closer care of their kids around stagnant water with open cuts,” he said. “I’m definitely spreading the word that this bacteria exists and is very brutal and unforgiving.”
Flenders cannot say with 100 percent certainty that he contracted the bacteria from the koi pond. No one will test the koi pond for Streptococcus. Flenders said he called the Montgomery County Health Department and Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection with no luck. Flenders said he won’t go near the pond.
“I’m not really upset about this — my friends will agree that I took this situation in a positive way and kept an optimistic attitude throughout the whole event,” he said. “To lose only a tiny amount of a secondary finger felt like a blessing to me.”
A fundraiser is ongoing to help pay Flenders’ medical costs. To donate, visithttp://igg.me/p/243489?a=1530690.
Check out Flenders’ online album of NSFW pictures documenting his experience here:http://imgur.com/a/CuxUZ. (If you get queasy at gory pictures, take caution).
Learn more about Necrotizing Fasciitis at this link for the National Necrotizing Fasciitis Foundation.