A doctor I had never seen before came over to my bed, and drew the curtain around. ‘Mr Harris?’ he checked. ‘Yes.’ ‘I’m from the infection control team. You’ve tested positive for MRSA. We’re going to put you into a side room. Here is a leaflet.’
He probably said a bit more than that, but not much. Now, I had heard of MRSA – this was 2005, everyone had – it was the super-bug that ate your flesh and killed you! So I spent a few minutes thinking just that – that this was it, after two big operations within a week it wasn’t the ulcerative colitis, or the toxic mega-colon, or the septicemia that was going to kill me – it was MRSA. Let me explain.
I was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis, a type of Inflammatory Bowel Disease in May 2005. I had blood in the toilet bowl, ignored it for a while, then tried some haemorrhoid cream. When that did nothing, I went to the GP who referred me for a colonoscopy.
The results of that showed that I had UC, and I was given some suppositories. I assumed that it would clear right up, so I was a bit surprised when, a few months later, things got worse, and I ended up in hospital – having my colon taken out before it exploded.
Having been very ill I started to get better – and then very rapidly went downhill again – I was being fed by a drip and it had become infected.
It was when I had this second operation, and was swabbed in theatre, that the MRSA was detected.
So what is MRSA? It stands for Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus aureus – Staph being a common bacteria, but in this case it has developed resistance to the antibiotic Methicillin that would usually be used to treat it. Antibiotic resistant strains have developed for a number of reasons – over use of antibiotics, people not using them as directed and not finishing the course, but also the over and misuse of them in farming – as well as a number of genetic reasons too.
And so I sat in my hospital bed thinking I was going to die from an un-treatable infection.
I did what anyone would do in that situation – I decided to read the leaflet. It turns out that MRSA is in fact treatable, with a very potent antibiotic called Vancomycin. And when I say potent what I mean is that it burns your veins after a few doses – 5 in my case- so every day and a half I had to be re-canulated. It meant that when I called my mum and girlfriend I could tell them I was being treated. I was barrier nursed for the remainder of my stay, and had an antibacterial wash and nasal cream as well as the IV antibiotics.
What I have discovered since is that all of us carry Staphylococcus aureus, and about a third of us carry MRSA in our noses and throats – and it doesn’t do us any harm unless we have an open wound (usually).
Because it is so common, it’s important to know that we can prevent it spreading to those who would be at risk from it.
Of course it is too small to see, and you won’t know you have it – but the spread can be prevented by using the alcohol gel when visiting friends or relatives in hospital – and making sure that staff do the same.
And longer term we need to get better at using antibiotics appropriately and responsibly. I’ve been infected with MRSA several times, and it has given me scars that were very unsightly (which have since been replaced). I have also needed many course of antibiotics to treat abscesses, and would really like to have those available as an option if I get another one.
After all, nobody wants to be given an extra leaflet to read.
Words by Richard Harris