"The way you tell is, typically, it's the appearance of a boil," Chambers said. "Classic features are … redness, the skin is warm, it's tender, there may be swelling and there may be drainage of pus."
After the initial infected injury on McQueary's leg, there were more boils and sores that refused to heal. McQueary said that MRSA living inside of her has damaged muscles and tissue, and she believes that because her boils were not drained properly, the MRSA continued to thrive in her system. She's also quick to point out that people who believe they show signs of the infection should insist on a culture for MRSA.
"It's permanently in your system, McQueary said. "It can lie dormant. Some people never get it again, but some are like me." McQueary has been fighting off MRSA for three years now. Despite all the different antibiotics and precautions she takes, the infection keeps coming back.
Before the infection took over her life, McQueary and her husband used to make their living showing their prized Bernese mountain dogs. With the constant pain and therapy she can't do that anymore.
"I'm still doing pain management, still taking Norco, valium, just to get through my day with my leg because of the cramping and the spasms and the pain that goes through my leg," McQueary said. And as of today, McQueary is on two new antibiotic IV drips to fend off the latest recurrence of MRSA infection.
McQueary lives at home with her husband, their two children and toddler grandson. Her priority is to keep them safe. She makes sure that her 19-month-old grandson's hands are wiped and washed all the time to kill any staph bacteria. So far, none of her family members have contracted MRSA.
McQueary finds some comfort in doling out advise to other MRSA sufferers by sharing her experience with them on a Web site she moderates called MRSA Resources
Through her work with others on the Web site and through following news reports, McQueary knows that her story is actually quite common. " My case is not much different than thousands of others, it's crazy," she said.
Chambers and other infectious disease doctors are concerned that eventually the drugs they use to treat MRSA will stop working.
"We may eventually lose what drugs we do have, [and that] is a real concern in treating MRSA infections," Chambers said. "We know from the experience in the hospital that this organism-type of bacteria is very adept at adapting to any antibiotic that we throw at it."
Common infections are treated with a week or 10 days of antibiotics and they're gone, but McQueary has tried dozens of antibiotics and her infection goes away only to come back again.
Finding an antibiotic that works is not as easy as it used to be because bacteria grow more virulent over time. In a lab at the University of California at San Fransisco, where the latest and most aggressive MRSA strain, USA300, was discovered, researchers match patients with antibiotics they hope will cure them.
Using bacteria from infected patients, Dr. Jeff Brooks grows ''lawns'' of germs in petri dishes and adds tiny spots of antibiotics. He then waits 24 hours to see what works on that particular strain. The results show how complicated finding an antibiotic can be. After all, bugs such as MRSA are organisms whose very DNA is designed for survival.