When Rick Kenma came down with a case of strep throat last February, he quickly made an appointment with his doctor to seek relief and treatment.
"I had a sore throat like anybody else might get," said Kemna, who lives in East Bethel, Minn. "I didn't ignore it. I had a doctor's appointment."
But on the night before he was to see his doctor, it became clear that this was no ordinary strep infection.
Kemna said his hands and feet went numb. And then he began to change color.
"My wife looked at my legs and they were turning a lovely shade of blue," Kemna said.
In an exceedingly rare twist, Kemna's strep infection had spread from his throat to the rest of his body. Kemna, his wife Jill, and their three children rushed him to an emergency room where he was diagnosed with toxic shock syndrome -- a dangerous, potentially fatal condition that decreases blood flow throughout the body, causing multiple organ failures.
The disastrous infection nearly took his life, and the experience would leave him a double amputee.
Such complications are so rare that, for the vast majority of the estimated 10 million Americans who suffer through strep infections every year, it should not be a cause for concern.
"It's extremely unlikely for something like this to happen, which means that people shouldn't get overly concerned about it," said Dr. Aaron Glatt, a spokesman for the Infectious Disease Society of America (IDSA) and president of New Island Hospital in Bethpage, N.Y. "The odds of something like this happening are minuscule."
But in Kenma's case, the strep bacteria made the improbable jump from his sore throat to the soft tissues in his body. And the result was a struggle for his life.
Rare Complication From Common Infection
Normally, strep throat can be quickly and easily treated with antibiotics, and it is normally eliminated by the body's immune system in a matter of days.
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However, in Kemna's case, the infection set into motion a cascade of events that ultimately led to toxic shock -- a form of septic shock in which streptococcal bacteria enter the bloodstream and are transferred throughout the body.
Toxic shock is rare among adults, with about 100,000 cases reported each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and these cases are mostly in women who experience a rare complication associated with tampons.
In the week following his diagnosis, Kemna was transferred to the burn unit at the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, Minn. By this time, his blood flow had deteriorated to the point where he was experiencing multiple organ failure that ravaged his kidneys, liver and heart.
Worst of all, both his legs had suffered so much from lack of blood that they had become gangrenous. Doctors were forced to amputate them.
"In order to save his life, you have to take off the parts that are already dead," said Dr. Jan Johnson, a critical care specialist at Unity Hospital in Fridley, Minn., where Kemna was first admitted.
"This is an extremely uncommon complication," Johnson added. "The vast majority of people with strep throat, this doesn't happen to."
Johnson noted that it is possible that Kemna's immune system may not have been functioning properly despite his being an apparently healthy man. But Glatt said that even this alone would not have predisposed Kemna to the problems he experienced.
"Even the vast majority of immunocompromised people would not have this happen to them," Glatt said.
Seeking Solace in Family Life
Kemna admits to feeling frustrated that he cannot get around as quickly as he would like to. He still does not own a van large enough to fit his wheelchair. But he said he doesn't have time to be down, as he is staying busy with his children. And there are changes ahead.
"I know I will walk again," said Kemna, having recently been fitted for prosthetic legs. "I'm happy to be alive."
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Dan Childs contributed to this report.