For years, we’ve been hearing warnings that overuse of antibiotics could lead to a crisis of mutated microbes that fail to respond to the usual drugs. And now MRSA, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, is here, and the staph infection is prevalent in the places where the most antibiotics are in use: our hospitals and nursing homes.
When leaders of the world’s major industrial nations met at the G7 summit in Germany this June, one of the issues discussed was the growing problem of antibiotic-resistant infections. Scientific academies of the seven countries issued statements that recommended boosting research on treatment options and raising public awareness about the problem.
Singer Ingrid Sertso of Woodstock, co-founder of Creative Music Studio, now has awareness of MRSA from personal experience. Her story of disaster and recovery began with a broken arm on December 5 of last year. Although the injury was not serious, Sertso, 71, spent a night in the hospital with an IV. As MRSA enters the body through breaks in the skin, it is believed that the insertion of the IV was responsible for the infection.
Sertso returned home and was fine for about a week. Then, she recalled, “I got tired, I couldn’t eat, and every day it got worse. I became nauseous. I went into delirium shortly before the new year. I don’t remember getting back to the hospital. In intensive care, a lot of friends went to visit me, and I can’t remember one face. From New Year’s to the end of February, I was half awake and half gone — mostly gone.”
The infection spread to the liver and kidneys, and Sertso contracted pneumonia. She needed a ventilator to breathe and a tube feeder to take in nourishment. “I couldn’t eat or speak for two and a half months,” she said. “I couldn’t get up and could only lie on my back. They tried to find the right antibiotic that would kill this bacteria. Many doctors came to see me.”
She was also visited by monks from Karma Triyana Dharmachakra (KTD) monastery in Woodstock, where Sertso and her husband, musician Karl Berger, study and practice Buddhism. Dr. Charles Kutler, the physician of KTD teacher Bardor Tulku Rinpoche, finally found the antibiotic that cleared up the infection.
“I’m very lucky because I have a beautiful family,” said Sertso. “Karl and my daughter came every day to the hospital.”
In mid-March, as Sertso was improving, she remembered, “Two people came in, a woman assistant and a doctor, and they both said, ‘It looks beautiful — your blood is clean. Get out of here before you get another infection.’ That threw me totally over. You expect hospitals to get you well, and then they say something like that to you.”
She was transferred to Wingate Rehabilitation Center in Beacon, where she relearned how to walk, sit, eat, and speak. “When you have something like that, you become like a baby,” she said. “I got fantastic physical therapy. The young girls who worked with me said I learned so fast. I was two days on a walker, then on a cane, and then I walked freely. I had to learn to eat right so nothing goes into my lungs.”
Staph bacteria tend to infect people with low immunity. Sertso, on the other hand, was in good health. “I’d never been so sick in my life,” she remarked. “I used to do yoga every day and African dance, qi gong. We eat a good diet, organic food. But several doctors said if you break something, it’s such a shock to the immune system and the body.”
Wash your hands!
Prevention and treatment of MRSA is a major priority in local hospitals, said Dr. Stuart Feinstein, Director of Infectious Diseases at Vassar Brothers Hospital in Poughkeepsie and a physician with the Division of Infectious Diseases at Health Quest, the organization that runs Vassar, Northern Dutchess Hospital, and other health facilities in the Hudson Valley.
“In many units, we screen patients and do a culture of body sites,” he said. “Sometimes the bacteria will colonize, but the patient isn’t sick yet. If the test is positive, we put the patient in a private room, anyone that goes in wears gowns and gloves, and we observe strict handwashing. If someone is scheduled for surgery, they’re screened first, and if there’s staph present, we try to decontaminate before the operation.”
Treatment varies according to the type of infection. Antibiotic ointment can be applied to boils or skin infections, which usually clear up within a few days. If the bacteria have reached the bloodstream, intervention is more difficult and may require intravenous antibiotics. “There are a number of different antibiotics that are effective,” said Feinstein, “but some are costly. We haven’t seen any strains in our areas that are rare or untreatable.” Depending on the site of the infection and the severity, four to six weeks of IV may be needed.
MRSA can also occur outside of hospitals and is of special concern to athletes, who may incur cuts and abrasions during sports activities. The Mayo Clinic website lists measures for prevention of MRSA:
Maintain good hand and body hygiene.
Keep cuts, scrapes, and wounds clean and covered until healed.
Avoid sharing personal items such as towels and razors.
Get care early if you think you might have an infection.
A doctor told Sertso that hand sanitizers are problematic and can actually spread germs. The Federal Food and Drug Administration reports that manufacturers of hand sanitizers are claiming their products can prevent MRSA. But the FDA says these claims are unfounded, as most contain antibacterial agents that do not necessarily kill MRSA. Handwashing, especially before handling food, is suggested as the best prevention: “Wash hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds. For children, this means the time it takes to sing the ‘Happy Birthday’ song twice.”++
Many musicians are offering to perform at a fundraiser to help pay Ingrid Sertso’s medical bills. The event is being planned for October. For details, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.