Husband of flesh-eating bacteria victim tells how woman full of hope had sudden decline

7:32 AM, Aug 1, 2012   |    comments
Crystal Spencer (Detroit Free Press)
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(DETROIT FREE PRESS) -- After a frightening month in and out of three hospitals, Crystal Spencer eagerly awaited returning to her home in Farmington Hills.

Spencer, 33, told her husband and a close friend she was going to stop smoking. She was determined to lose weight. And she was looking forward to bonding with her new chihuahua puppy.

But she never made it home.

Twelve days after doctors told her she was finally clear of a life-threatening necrotizing fasciitis infection -- the flesh-eating bacteria -- Spencer took a sudden, startling turn for the worse Sunday.

Jeff Spencer, her husband of 14 years, said he left his wife at 1:15 p.m. Sunday at Huron Valley-Sinai Hospital in Commerce Township so he could check out, at her request, the White Hills rehabilitation facility where she was being transferred.

"I gave her a kiss and told her, 'I love you,' " he said.

Shortly after he left her, the hospital called and told him to come back immediately.

"As soon as I got off the elevator," the staff told him, "We've got some bad news," he said.

A team of eight doctors worked for more than an hour to resuscitate his wife, amid alarms indicating she was near death three times. She died at 3:36 p.m. Sunday.

The family is raising money to conduct an autopsy, possibly as early as today, to find out as much as they can about what happened. Results could take several weeks.

A memorial service will be held today. Friends and family plan to exchange memories of a woman who found happiness despite tough odds.

She was a high school dropout and had been poor and underinsured or uninsured most of her life. She had adult-onset diabetes and weighed more than 300 pounds all of her adult life, factors that put her at higher risk of contracting the flesh-eating bacteria.

"She loved kids," said her husband. She baby-sat for nieces and nephews and was a volunteer for the summer youth program at their church, First United Methodist of Farmington, he said.

She and her husband, both unemployed, had wanted a family. A 2008 pregnancy ended in the stillborn death of their son, Christian, in the fifth month of pregnancy.

The Spencers had limited health insurance until about a week ago, when they learned their application for Medicaid had been approved. Spencer said he has thousands of dollars in medical debt from care not covered by insurance.

Crystal Spencer's death has drawn national attention to a rare disease many had never heard of and others knew only by its scary name: the flesh-eating bacteria.

Nationwide, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported 500-1,500 cases a year; one in five people dies from it. Many others have fingers, toes or limbs amputated because the bacteria eats away at underlying layers of tissue.

Many cases are misdiagnosed or found late, according to the National Necrotizing Fasciitis Foundation, a nonprofit founded by two women who survived the infection. One is Donna Batdorff of Grand Rapids, whose story is told on the group's website, www.nnff.org.

Batdorff developed necrotizing fasciitis in 1996, after noticing a cut on her hand when she removed a ski glove on a Colorado trip. The illness largely affected her finger, but she describes how she returned to gardening, skiing and cycling after she got three prosthetic fingers.

The foundation hopes to raise awareness about a problem that needs more education and hospital early intervention programs so symptoms can be caught and treated with antibiotics or the removal of dead skin and infected tissue, a procedure called debridement. Others need surgery, including extensive skin grafts.

Too often, according to the foundation, patients get the wrong treatment because the infection is misdiagnosed.

Jeff Spencer said early on, doctors at Huron Valley-Sinai had told him his wife had a urinary tract infection. At Botsford Hospital in Farmington Hills, where she first sought care on June 23 for what she thought was a boil on her upper right thigh, an emergency department physician lanced the protruding tissue and sent her home with a Motrin prescription, said Theresa Corwin of Farmington Hills, a close friend.

She and Spencer blame Botsford for not running blood tests to see whether white blood cell counts were elevated, a sign of infection.

They also wonder why a doctor there called the infected area on her leg an "abscess" -- an accumulation of pus and tissue triggered by an infection -- but gave them no warning that Crystal Spencer might be contagious. Corwin, who said she is certified in CPR and first aid, was given the job of cleaning the wound and changing the dressings four to five times a day when her friend got home.

On Monday, Botsford spokeswoman Margo Gorchow said it was unlikely that Crystal Spencer contracted necrotizing facitiitis there because the infection typically is not acquired in a hospital, and the woman had none of its symptoms when she came to the emergency department.

A spokeswoman for Huron Valley-Sinai declined comment both Monday and Tuesday, citing patient privacy laws.

Jeff Spencer has contacted Farmington Hills attorney Brian Benner to obtain medical records to determine whether the hospital care his wife received was appropriate.

Benner also is helping the Spencer family pay for a private autopsy. Friends also hope to raise money for the autopsy, the funeral and the unpaid medical bills.

Mostly, Spencer said he wants answers because "we don't want this to happen again to someone else."

More Details: How to help with family's expenses

Donations for Crystal Spencer's funeral and other expenses can be made to: LOC Federal Credit Union, 22981 Farmington Road, Farmington 48336.

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