Three-Time Cancer Survivor Loses Hands, Feet From Dog-Saliva Infection

PHOTO: Decatur resident Hannah Rinehart, a three-time cancer survivor, is now fighting a rare bacterial infection.
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At 32 years old, nursing student Hannah Rinehart is hooked to a ventilator, her body healing after an amputation of her hands and feet.

The Decatur, Ga., woman, who is also a three-time cancer survivor, is fighting a rare bacterial infection, called capnocytophaga, which is found in the saliva of dogs but rarely affects people, her father, Doug Johnson, said.

During a weekend of yard work, Rinehart contracted a high fever, but held out seeking medical attention until her appointment that Monday, July 2, with her oncologist.

The married nursing student, who also has a business degree, changed careers after she successfully battled Hodgkin's lymphoma three times. The cancer first appeared when she was 18, Johnson said.

After the cancer re-appeared for the third time when she was she was in her mid-20s, Rinehart had a stem-cell transplant from her brother that has so far been successful, her father said.

Rinehart left the hospital seven years ago in July, hoping she'd only be back as a nurse.

But on July 2, on the recommendation of her oncologist, she was wheeled into Northside Hospital in Atlanta with a high fever. That evening, her father said, she went into septic shock.

"Her blood pressure was low and her kidneys and lungs were weakened," he said.

Doctors sent a sample of the bacteria attacking Rinehart's body to the Mayo Clinic, where it was identified as capnocytophaga, a common bacteria found in dog saliva that rarely harms the health of humans.

There's no way to directly tie the infection to Rinehart's 1-year-old puppy, her father said, but the family has its theories.

"Hannah would throw the ball for the dog and it would mouth her hand and forearm and she'd get scratches," Johnson said. "What we suppose is the fact she has had two bone-marrow transplants, her immune system is probably not that strong as a regular adult."

The infection continued to cut off circulation to Rinehart's extremities, leaving her parents and husband Mark a difficult decision to make.

"To not respond to the situation as it stands now would not be a display of faith, but rather a crude act of negligence," Mark Rinehart wrote on his wife's Facebook page before the surgery.

On July 26, doctors amputated Hannah Rinehart's hands and feet. "It was very obvious it needed to be done at that point," her father said. "We had been praying and just watching it get worse."

Rinehart has been sedated since the surgery, but has continued to make improvements.

Her 103.7-degree fever went down to 98.6 degrees Tuesday night, Mark Rinehart said.

And despite having another health obstacle thrown in her path, Rinehart and her family, who are devout Christians, are confident she'll be able to live a normal life.

"She is very strong. I don't even really remember her complaining about [the cancer] at all," her father said.

"We get the news and then you'd find out what to do and she kind of plugged away and kept going. After this, she'll be able to carry on and have a great life."

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