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Based on a True Story

A guest post by Kevin Ikenberry.

Over the last twenty or so years of military service there have been certain words that do not strike a good chord with me.  Warrior is one.  All soldiers are not warriors, nor are all warriors soldiers.  Operator is another.  Every time I hear that word, I see Mable from The Andy Griffith Show.  Survivor was another, but not from a military perspective.  When I would heard “survivor,” – particularly in stories of cancer – it hurt.  I lost my Mom in 2011 to lung cancer.  From diagnosis to death was less than nine months.  And she gave it hell.  Hearing “survivor” hurt a lot, until it happened to me.

Not cancer.  Something stranger and less understood.

On Sunday, February 17, 2014, my family had several errands to do.  We decided to divide and conquer.  My wife and our oldest would go one way, and me and our then-fourteen month old would go another.  It was about 4:30pm when I felt something familiar.

I grew up in the South, and spent time all over the southwestern United States.  I know what a fire ant bite feels like, and at that moment, I was sure what had happened on my upper right thigh.  When I checked myself, and my jeans, I found nothing.  No ants, no spider, no scorpion.  Nothing except a spot of red, swollen skin the size of a quarter.  I did what any reasonable adult would do.  I assumed it was a bite of some kind, took a Benadryl, and went off to do errands.

Four hours later, I felt exhausted and decided to go to bed.  An hour after that, I began to vomit.  That phase lasted until about 2:30am on Monday, when it switched directions and I developed a fever.  At 5:30am, weak and dehydrated, I told my wife that something was very wrong and I needed to go to the emergency room.  Food poisoning doesn’t come with a fever, and I was scorchingly hot.  With our kids, it was a difficult proposition so I called my neighbor.  He didn’t answer.  Now beyond exhaustion, I fell asleep.

When I woke up two hours later, two things had happened.  My wife had arranged for play dates and babysitters so she could get me to the hospital as soon as I woke up.  That was the good news.  The bad was that something was seriously wrong with my leg.  The red area was now black in spots and the swelling had worsened.  My fever was somewhere north of 103 degrees and I was in pain.  Serious pain.

We arrived at the Emergency Room to find it empty (Hallelujah!).  The nurses took me back for triage, took a good look at me and sent me straight back to treatment.  The attending physician came in, looked at my leg, and left shaking his head.  He returned with the on-call surgeon.

The surgeon said, “That presents (looks) like a rattlesnake bite.”

“I can damned well assure you that’s not what happened,” I said between grimaces of pain.  They started a morphine drip, told me my kidneys had virtually shut down, and placed a cardiac monitor on my chest.  My heart was going crazy.  They started pushing a lot of fluids (four liters!) as well.  Unbeknownst to me, they had also done one very critical thing – they called an infectious disease specialist.

The man who saved my life.

When Pete arrived, he looked at my leg and told the surgeon he was wrong but said that he didn’t know what it was, but he wanted to throw multiple strong antibiotics at it to see what took.  They admitted me straight the to Critical Care Unit, and things got worse.

Within about twelve hours after admission, my temperature kept rising and the swelling on my leg took off.  I won’t detail what it looked like, except that any picture you can find of necrotizing fasciitis will show it pretty well.  My right thigh was almost three times its normal size.  The skin blistered and cracked, turning more black and impressively swollen that you can imagine.  I’ll stop there.

When I woke up Tuesday morning, another doctor stood at the end of my CCU bed and told me point blank that they recently had someone younger than me die of something similar. A few hours later, my temperature crested above 105 degrees.  The nurses packed me in ice, and tried their best to smile.  I held hands with my wife and promised that when I was out of the hospital, we’d do things better.  Parent our kids with more grace, be nicer to each other, and do all of the things we loved to do together.  The things that get lost when there are two kids in the house.  We were scared to death.  My father was out of the country and nervously waiting for word.  We weren’t sure what to tell him.

To this day, I’m convinced that a majority of my medical team did not think I would make it through the night.  But Pete did.  My fever came down to 103, and then all the way down to 99 as the antibiotics took hold.  The team ruled out MRSA when they drained a massive water blister on my leg, but all of the blood cultures taken showed something very unexpected.

Absolutely nothing.

To this day, nothing has grown from those cultures.  The infection responded to the drugs that treat a Group A Streptococcal infection.  This is a good thing, because as Pete put it “Even Lysol still kills Group A Strep.”  I came off the drugs for a staph infection and they moved me up to the medical ward to see if my leg would begin to knit itself back together.

Cleaning and debriding the leg was pure hell.  The wound nurse would come for an hour at a time and just remove skin.  Where my leg blistered and swelled is discolored and bruised to this day, and probably will be for life.  I spent a total of ten days in the hospital before they released me to home care for another two months.  I had IV antibiotics for part of that, and three times a week wound care to treat my healing skin.  I joked that I could have been a leg model for “The Walking Dead.”

At one point, in the CCU, they asked me to step onto a scale.  I weighed over 240 pounds from the swelling and the pushed fluids.  That’s about forty pounds over my normal weight.  It was terrible.

But I began to heal.   Physically, my leg started to heal quickly with expert treatment.  Mentally, I was shot.  I spent a lot of time looking out the window on the Colorado winter wondering what in the hell had happened to me.  I tried to write, but the words would not come.  I tried to play video games, but lost interest within minutes.  I watched movies with a grudging interest for a few weeks until I felt a little better.

What got me through that low time were my friends.  My writing group moved our March meeting to my house.  Visitors came to hang out with me almost every day.  I had emails from all over the world.  A strong note of encouragement came from Clarkesworld editor Neil Clarke (who survived a massive heart attack a couple of years ago).  Writing fiction was a slog.  The words finally began to come.  Before this infection, I completed two separate first draft novels in about nine weeks.  Roughly 120,000 words.  Since my infection, I’ve written about 60,000 words.

It’s still a challenge, but the focus is returning and I’m feeling better every day.  I returned to work in May, and despite a 24-hour relapse and night in the hospital, I’ve been healthy ever since.  I’m still taking antibiotics and trying to gain strength and flexibility in my leg.  It’s a long process, and I’ve returned to swimming for most of it.  The solitude and focus of swimming has helped me turn the corner creatively.  The ideas are flowing again, almost too fast to get down on paper.  That’s a really good thing.  The work is paying off.

At the end of my recovery period, I caught wind of an upcoming horror anthology themed against viruses and bacteria called “Pernicious Invaders” by Great Old Ones Publishing.  Taking my copious experience to heart, I wrote a story over the course of a day and a half and sent it in.  There’s nothing like writing in a query letter that this horror story could have been subtitled “based on a true story.”

My story was accepted before the submission period was closed.  The editor asked to lead the anthology with my story, and I asked if I could add an author’s note.  In the story, the specialist shares a first name with my doctor, Pete.  It was the least I could do to thank him.  He’ll argue that he at least saved my leg, but that the rest was up to me and God.

I still disagree with him.  Without his care, I contend that might not have survived.  We’ll never really know.  What matters is that a word I detested, and struggled against, now applies to me.  I’m a survivor of necrotizing fasciitis, or skin-eating disease.  There are others like me.  This strange bacterial illness strikes one in every couple of hundred thousand people.  Others are not so lucky.  I still haven’t processed that.  I’m not sure that a part of me will ever be able to.

On the bright side, I always labeled myself as science fiction author.  I still haven’t achieved the professional membership requirements for SFWA, but I’m a member of the Horror Writer’s Association now (or will be in the next few weeks once that contract is signed).  This will be my second anthology appearance, and I’m humbled and honored to lead it off.  I hope my tale is scary enough for the reader.  What happened to me sure as hell was.

All in all, the most profound changes are still taking root.  A lot of the things I cared so deeply about before the infection have taken a backseat to more important things.  Family.  Life.  Happiness.  While writing has been difficult, it’s getting easier.  In this case, you could say that I wrote what I knew.  I wish I didn’t know what this was like, but I cannot change it.  My leg will be scarred and discolored for the rest of my life.  It’s a reminder to me.  Everyday life is not found in living every day.  Do the things that really matter and let the rest go.  This life is too short, and too precious, to be squandered.  Before the infection, I was going through the motions.  Yes, I wrote faster and without as much care, but I carried way too many burdens.  It’s amazing what a few days in the hospital and a brush with mortality can do.

Writing about the infection was cathartic.  By taking the infection to an unimaginable extreme, I helped put some of the fear I felt behind me.  The lesson for me in all of this was very simple.  Sometimes life is indeed stranger than fiction, or at the very least makes it an even better story.  Whatever happens, keep writing.

KevinIkenberry.smallGuest Writer Bio:
Kevin Ikenberry’s head has been in the clouds since he was old enough to read. Ask him and he’ll tell you that he still wants to be an astronaut. Kevin has a diverse background in space and space science education. A former manager of the world-renowned U.S. Space Camp program in Huntsville, Alabama and a former executive of two Challenger Learning Centers, Kevin continues to work with space every day as a lieutenant colonel in U.S. Army Reserve. Kevin lives in Colorado with his wife and two daughters.  His home is seldom a boring place. Kevin’s short fiction has appeared internationally through Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Mindflights, Twisted Dreams Magazine, AntipodeanSF, and most recently in the anthology Extreme Planets, available from Chaosium. He has completed four novels to date and is actively working to find them a home. Kevin is a member of Fiction Foundry, Pikes Peak Writers, and an alumna of the Superstars Writing Seminar. He can be found online and on Twitter @thewriterike.