Topeka mom battling 'flesh-eating bacteria' infection

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Tamara Owsley remembers the moment her life began to take a turn for the worse.

"Memorial Day is when I got bit by a spider," she said. "We were playing hide-and-seek and I ran into the biggest spider web of my life."

Days passed and the spider bite only got worse.

Despite the intense swelling and sickness, Owsley, who is 32 years old, thought she would be okay.

However, after a week, Owsley and her husband knew something was wrong.

"My arm was growing an inch an hour. He said, 'That’s enough. I’m taking you to the hospital,'" she said. "My arm was probably two or three times the size."

Weeks later, Owsley's arm is covered in bandages and scars.

After going to the hospital 35 days ago, she has undergone 14 surgeries.

Owsley now represents one of the 700 to 1,200 cases of necrotizing fasciitis, commonly called "flesh-eating bacteria", reported on average in the US every year.

"It’s the most painful thing someone ever has to go through in their life," she said. "It changes your whole entire life. It’s never going to be the same after."

On Thursday, Owsley spoke with 41 Action News from her room inside University of Kansas Hospital.

Her left arm remains heavily bandaged as she continues to recover.

"They sliced my whole arm open all the way," explained Owsley, glancing at her body. "I’ve lost everything inside of my left arm. I’ve lost my left pectoral muscle."

As a result of the operations and damage from the disease, Owsley can only lift her left arm a few inches upwards.

"One day I could be fine. The next day, I might not be able to open the toothpaste," said the mother of five children. "You think about the 31 years before I was able to do everything by myself. Now, I’m having to ask for help."

Owsley told 41 Action News she had never heard of the disease before she was infected with it.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, necrotizing fasciitis continues to be very rare.

However, it can lead to loss of limbs and even death.

While the exact cause of the disease still remains unknown, researchers say "flesh-eating bacteria" often enters through breaks in the skin (cuts, burns, insect bites, puncture or surgical wounds).

People with cancer, kidney disease, and diabetes are also more likely than others to get the infection.

"To be truthful, we don’t know exactly how it happens," explained Dr. Dhaval Bhavsar of University of Kansas Health System. "It’s not very common but is very devastating and sometimes life-threatening."

Due to how quickly the disease can spread, Dr. Bhavsar said immediate response remains essential in treating the infection.

"It spreads so rapidly that we have seen patients get really sick in a matter of few hours," he explained. "Patients went to sleep and felt they were sick. When they woke up, the infection spread over their entire arm or leg."

In total, Dr. Bhavsar said University of Kansas Hospital treats around 50 patients for the disease every year.

For the people who get the infection, like Tamara Owsley, months of recovery follow.

"It’s very serious and it’s very life-taking," she said. "Doctors said if I waited a little longer, I wouldn’t be alive."

Owsley told 41 Action News that she will undergo her 15th surgery next Tuesday.

Print this article Back to Top