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Patient Stories: Joan Corboy

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An Illinois woman nearly loses her life while struggling with a recurrent and drug-resistant C. difficile infection.

My name is Ed Corboy Jr. and in early December 2006 and January 2007, I watched helplessly as my mother, Joan, grew weaker, more dehydrated, and nearly died. She was started on intravenous fluids and standard C. difficile antibiotics while in the hospital two different times that December. Her blood pressure dipped dangerously low on many occasions. She had lost almost 55 pounds in the previous five months, and she was so profoundly exhausted, tired, and wasting away that it became apparent in early January she might die from this. She could hardly get to a bedside commode without two people helping her. Prior to this, she was able to walk to her bathroom with her walker on her own for years.

Her doctors had diagnosed C. difficile the previous November, in 2006, but the infection and its awful symptoms—diarrhea, severe weight loss, increasing weakness, and worsening fatigue—returned repeatedly after two rounds of antibiotics in December 2006 and early January 2007 failed to kill the bacteria making her so sick.

That January, following several visits to the local hospital emergency room, hospital stays, and a short time in a rehabilitation facility, my mother was placed in a skilled nursing facility in the Chicago area. Her family internal medicine doctors were trying to do the right thing, but she just kept getting worse and worse.

Just two years before this, the father of a good friend of mine, with serious heart disease, recent major heart surgery, and a resistant C. difficile infection, had died, in part from this infection, which seemed to go on and on following his surgery. I feared my mother was nearing the same fate.

In desperation, I called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta in early January, hoping to find some way to help my mother. A top C. difficile expert there explained the dangers posed by a sometimes deadly and drug-resistant strain of C. difficile bacteria responsible for thousands of deaths nationwide and even more around the world. He suggested contacting two infectious diseases doctors in the Chicago area who were C. difficile experts.

These doctors quickly increased the dose of the antibiotic my mother was taking that January. She began to slowly improve and moved back home to live with me after spending five weeks in a skilled nursing facility. But she was still very weak and continued to suffer from diarrhea every day as the expert doctors continued monitoring and adjusting her treatment.

I was encouraged but still worried. I wasn’t sure if my mom was going to beat this thing. We call my mother a “tough cookie,” and she really is: Thankfully, after a new round of antibiotic therapy proposed by her doctors in May 2007, she finally beat C. difficile for good. The infection’s symptoms were gone after a nightmare that had lasted more than eight months.  I have learned that my mother’s experience is an all too common problem in the U.S. and around the world, as deaths and suffering caused by new forms of drug-resistant C. difficile are on the rise.

I am so thankful my mother’s doctors were able to help her battle this near fatal infection. My mother and I both hope her nightmare experience can show others how serious antibiotic-resistant C. difficile is and the importance of preventing, diagnosing and managing these infections properly. Clearly, there is a need to educate doctors, health care workers, and the public about C. difficile, other resistant infections, and the need for effective diagnosis, treatments, and appropriate use of antibiotics. Unless something is done, these bacteria are going to continue to wreak havoc on many people and their families.

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