A New Walk on Life… Jennifer’s Story

Jennifer Thomas’ story is part of UNC REX Healthcare’s Brand New Day patient story series – inspiring us to do what we do, every day.

My journey started late November of 2009. My son and I went on a walk in the park. We took off our socks and shoes and played in the creek. We had a great time. The next day I felt what I could only describe as a spider bite on my ankle. That evening, I went from chills to high fevers and my left ankle/leg began to hurt. I did not think the flu “symptoms” and my hurting leg were related.

Jennifer ThomasThree days later, I woke up to get out of bed and fell on the floor. My whole left ankle and foot were black. All I could think of was gangrene. I was a healthy 47 years old; what was wrong with me? I thought it was just a spider bite.

My husband and I raced to Rex Hospital. It was “our” hospital as my husband had three surgeries there. We trusted Rex to help me.

I was processed through the E.R. so fast. A doctor was asking me all kinds of questions and I kept saying I think I have a spider bite. My husband went out to make a call, and when he came back I was in the ICU. The infection had gotten into my bloodstream and I was in renal failure with sepsis. I was told by Dr. Milano (my angel surgeon) that I would have to have exploratory surgery. They needed to be sure it wasn’t something serious. During the first surgery, it was confirmed that a Strep A bacteria known as Necrotizing Fasciitis “flesh eating bacteria” was the culprit. This was serious. This is rare.

I was placed on a ventilator for nine days. It was a struggle to get the infection under control. My husband was overwhelmed by the dedication and compassion Dr. Milano showed to both of us. The nurses in the ICU were also incredible.

They did not know if I would make it. The goal was to save my life first. Saving my leg was secondary. I was healthy but wasn’t responding to all they were giving me to fight the infection. Everyone rallied around me, praying for a miracle. And finally, my body began to fight back.

My journey was far from over. There were several times during this life-threatening battle when amputation of my leg was considered. But due to the care and skill of the medical staff at Rex and my own determination, I was able to keep my leg! I was then transferred to an acute care facility at UNC Healthcare in Chapel Hill to do a “miracle” repair, skin graft.

I always say Rex (my surgeon and the ICU nurses) saved my life and UNC put me back together. I am so blessed to have been close to such outstanding medical care. My skin graft took the first time. It took me over a year to walk and I have a funky looking leg, but I am so glad to look at my own toes. I can walk over four miles now!

I look back and wonder how I made it here. I tell everyone my story. I want everyone else to know not to ignore that weird looking spot. ASK questions of your doctor. YES, this is rare but it does happen. I am living proof.

I laugh as much as possible everyday. I have my days, but I am a warrior. I want everyone to know my story because I want to save lives. People say I’m an inspiration to them. I feel humbled. If my doctor had not done the surgery I would not be here today. I’m a miracle and I know it. I pay it forward everyday.

– Jennifer Thomas

  • Vic

    Love it – well done Jennifer for sticking it to NF and joining the amazing band of survivors

  • jennifer thomas

    thanks VIC!!! it has been a long, hard battle but I made it!!! I hope that with this video awarness of NF is more mainstream! I pray someone sees this and it saves their life!

  • jennifer thomas

    Vic-RU a survivor of NF… would love to chat… it is rare but we aren’t

  • Pam

    I loved the video, and now I love this article even more because it can go into additional detail!

  • jennifer thomas

    Jennifer here, i cannot tell you how this video and even my written story is only the tip of the iceberg. I sometimes have no idea how I have made it through this. If anyone has any questions about NF or how that little scratch can turn into a horrible infection please let me know. I look a bit different now, but my leg is a trophy, I’m so glad I worked so hard with the help of PT (at REX and UNC-burn unit) to walk again!

  • jennifer thomas

    being different is not a choice, but it is no reason to hide. empower yourself to be the best you can be! this summer i have challenged myself to go out in public showing my leg. and begging people to ask me what happened so i can educate them.. i want to save lives