Toxic Spider Bite Causes Woman to Lose Breast

Skeptical toxologists say MRSA bacteria more likely caused infection.

ByABC News
May 21, 2010, 3:44 PM

May 24, 2010— -- By the time Victoria Franklin called her twin sister to take her to the hospital in Atlanta on April 9, her breast had turned black and had blown up to the size of a loaf of bread.

"Her breast was three times the size, black as tar and had a horrible smell," said Valerie Dapaa, 51, who took her nearly unconscious sister to the hospital, where they removed her breast after finding it ravaged by gangrene.

"They call it the smell of death," said Dapaa. "The doctors said they didn't know if they could save her. She was diabetic and her sugar was up to 700."

Doctors told Franklin that she had been bitten by a brown recluse spider, a virulent little arachnid that is seen mainly in the south central part of the United States.

The brown recluse occurs in 15 states, one of them the northern part of Georgia where Franklin lives, according to the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle.

Inside the home, these spiders can be found in dark spots in the bath, garages, closets and cellars. They can nest in boxes of stored clothes and books.

"I don't even remember being bit," said Franklin from her hospital bed.

Franklin's doctors were not available to talk to, but some experts say these spiders are often erroneously blamed for skin infections turned septic -- and without finding the spider, no one will ever know for sure.

After surgery Franklin was in a diabetic coma on a respirator for 11 days. Today, she is at Well Star Windy Hill Hospital in Marietta, Georgia, undergoing physical therapy to regain her strength and awaiting reconstructive surgery.

"I'm doing fine," said Franklin, a 51-year-old divorcee from Hiram, Georgia. "It's really hard for me because I have been an independent lady for so long, and to think this was nearly taken away from me by a spider. That's what scares me -- not losing a breast, but the fact that a spider did me in. I have to learn to do everything all over again."

Franklin, who earns $3,500 a month filling late-night infomercial orders by phone and looks after her two grandchildren on the weekends, has no health insurance. She said she doesn't know how she is going to pay the hundreds of thousands of dollars she expects to owe the hospital for her treatment.

"People have been chipping in and helping, but I don't know how long that will continue," she said.

The twins have not always seen eye-to-eye, but after this brush with death, "We will be close for the rest of our lives," said Dapaa, who works as a cook.

Franklin's condition is known as necrotic arachnidism. Patients report "an abrupt stinging or itching sensation," followed in hours by a painful pimple that within 24 to 48 hours becomes black and necrotic.

"It's a nasty little spider that can cause skin destruction and make an ulcer and let infection in, and in some reported cases it can be very dramatic," said Dr. Marcel Casavant, chief of pharmacology and toxicology at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.

"If you Google it, you can see people losing an arm," he said. "But there are 20 or 30 other things that can do the same thing."

About 60 percent of all brown brown recluse spider bites are false reports, according to the Burke Museum.

Doctor blame "all kinds of mystery skin lesions and gangrenous sores on the bite of a non-existent spider," said Rod Crawford, Burke's curator of arachnids.

"[It's] one of the commoner kinds of medical malpractice, and people have actually died because they were treated for a spider bite they did not have, rather than for the far more serious condition they did have," he said.

The nocturnal and fragile spider, as its name suggests, is shy and seldom encounters humans, according to a 2002 report in American Medical News. Bites can occur when a person rolls onto it in bed.