My name is Alexa Bernard. I am 19 years old and I am currently a full time transfer student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where, although still undeclared, I’m hoping to declare my major in Mass Communications. I am also a sister of the Zeta Tau Alpha fraternity on campus. I transferred from the University of South Carolina – Columbia (my dream school) and have missed it dearly in these recent months of navigating a new university. The most common question I get asked by my peers is “Why did you transfer?”
I am writing this piece to tell you my story of survival, struggle and new beginnings.
On January 5th, 2016, I woke up nervous. Today was the day of my first surgery. I had never broken a bone or needed any sort of invasive procedure. However, today, one week before I returned to USC from winter break, I was preparing to have all four of my wisdom teeth removed. From my point of view, this was a major surgery. Being the overly anxious person that I am, I made sure that my mother was there to hold on tight to, from the moment we stepped foot in the oral surgeons office until they took me back to the operating room, which honestly just looked a normal exam room in a dentist’s office. As I sat in the exam chair and looked over the potential risks contract I was required to sign, I became increasingly anxious. Death? Why is death on this sheet? “Am I going to die?” I joked with the nurse. She chuckled and said of course not, although it was mandatory for the patient to be aware of any and all potential risks. Boy was she wrong.
My oral surgeon finally arrived and began my IV. As the sedative entered my bloodstream, I vaguely remember the doctor begin to sweat. He was sweating so intensely, you would’ve thought he was standing in the sun. His face was beat red and the sweat dripped from his hairline. I was terrified. At this point, my ability to do anything was almost completely diminished. Within seconds I was dreaming.
45 minutes later I woke up to my oral surgeon speaking with my mother, assuring her that the surgery went perfectly and my mouth took the trauma well. I was guided into a wheelchair and was wheeled to my mother’s car by the nurse who handed over my prescription for Oxycontin and wished me well. When we arrived at my home, my best friend Elizabeth was there waiting for me with a milkshake in hand. She knew just what I needed. I watched TV and sipped on my shake until it was time for her to leave. She hugged me and told me to get some rest, which was what I fully intended to do. I looked in the mirror. Although it had slightly increased, my swelling seemed fair and I went upstairs to get ready for bed.
As I dressed myself in pajamas, I began to feel a sharp pain in my jaws and slightly light headed. I took another Oxycontin as prescribed and went into the bathroom. Within seconds, I felt a rush of nausea and the urge to vomit. I sat at the toilet bowl and cried until my mother came to see what all the noise was. I do have a track record for being slightly dramatic when it comes to injuries and illness, but this time I was really struggling. She helped me to her bed and put a warm washcloth on my forehead. I couldn’t stop crying. The pain was so unbearable that I wanted to die. I seemed to be experiencing flu-like symptoms on top of the pain from my surgery. I screamed and begged for help from my mother, who was just as scared as I was. It was almost midnight when she phoned my oral surgeon and asked if I was potentially overdosing on the Oxycontin I had been taking throughout the day. He ultimately declared that I shouldn’t be if I had taken them appropriately, and hung up the phone. Something was wrong.
I stood up from the bed and walked down the hallway to my bedroom to retrieve an extra pillow to prop myself up with, as to not choke on the blood draining into my throat. On my way back to my mother’s room, I passed out and hit the floor with tremendous force. Immediately she dialed 911. An ambulance was there within minutes and the respondents came upstairs to evaluate the situation. They decided that it was best for me to be taken to the emergency room. They loaded me into the back of their vehicle and told my mom to meet us at the UNC hospital’s emergency room. I was terrified.
By the time I arrived at the hospital, I was in an excruciating, indescribable amount of pain. I was screaming, crying and begging for someone to please help me. The ER nurses rushed to my bedside and began to take my vitals. I clearly remember gasps and an audible “oh no…” My vitals were dropping. I was dying
How did I get here? How did a perfectly healthy 18 year old girl go from spending the holidays with her family, and preparing for a routine procedure one day, to laying on her death bed the next?
I was terrified, overwhelmed and confused all at the same time. Fluid began building in my lungs. Progressively, I started to lose my sight followed by the feeling in my limbs. As I watched them put IV’s in my arms, the last thing I remember thinking was “What is happening to me?”
Seven days later, I awoke in the same hospital bed, but in a different room. I was in the UNC Children’s Hospital. My dad, who was at the time residing in California, was there. I was so confused. My doctor entered and explained to me how I had defeated death. She explained to me that when I arrived, I was in the late stages of septic shock, an aggressive and brutal blood infection that had quickly taken over my organs and frail body. This explained my lack of senses for the past week – the infected blood in my brain mixed with the heavy duty pain killers prevented me from remembering anything that had happened.
Although I had defeated the sepsis, months of sickness still laid ahead of me. The bacteria in my blood had found a gathering point in my bod on my left jaw bone. So much bacteria had accumulated here over the last seven days that there was much cause for alarm. The hospital monitored me closely for the next few few weeks. I struggled with the consequences of the infection which included severe night sweats, nausea, vomiting, aches, pains and exhaustion, in addition to the open wounds in my mouth from the wisdom tooth surgery.
As the weeks passed and the infection in my face worsened, my parents, along with my team of physicians, struggled to find answers. Where did I contract such an infection? Was it related to the extraction of my wisdom teeth? As there something that my oral surgeon done to put me in such a deadly position? My doctors ultimately concluded, to the best of their knowledge, that since I became sick in such a short period of time (11 hours), my oral surgeon had to have directly infected me, either by a contaminated needle or expired anesthetic.
Finally, one morning, I woke to my facial abscess no longer hard like a rock, but soft and squishy like a water balloon. I was rushed into emergency surgery to drain the pocket of bacteria. Unfortunately during this surgery, since my skin had stretched so much from the swelling, it had lacerated on its own, causing a large gash to remain where the swelling had been. I was devastated.
Although it seemed that my luck had run out, I began to improve. Heavy antibiotics, although brutal for the rest of my body, helped my facial infection. My wound turned from black, dead colored flesh to a bright, pink color. Things were looking up the countdown to going home had finally begun.
On February 16th, 2016, I was released from UNC Children’s Hospital. Never have I been happier in my life. I was greeted at the door of my home by my two puppies who wagged, barked and kissed me until I fell to the floor. My front door was decorated with signs welcoming me home, I received phone calls, get well cards, gifts and goodies. I had never felt so loved.
Today I sit here writing my first article, almost a whole year later, reminiscing on my fight, reminiscing on my struggle and thanking God every day for a second chance at life. However, my struggle is not quite over. That is why I decided to start writing. I hope that I can find the peace and comfort I once had through words.
To learn more about sepsis and septic shock, click here!