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Henderson woman battling flesh-eating bacteria makes progress

Ashleigh Cope, the Henderson woman whose heart stopped on Thanksgiving after she was hospitalized with an often fatal infection caused by “flesh-eating bacteria,” has regained consciousness, spoken with her family and stood up with assistance, her mother said.

“She is truly a miracle and beating the odds,” Andrea Cope said Thursday of her 22-year-old daughter. “She is surprising her medical team daily.”

Ashleigh became ill following an outpatient surgical procedure at an undisclosed Henderson clinic two days before Thanksgiving. She was hospitalized the day before Thanksgiving and later diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis, a fast-moving infection usually caused by a type of Streptococcus, the bacteria responsible for strep throat and other ailments.

She developed sepsis, a life-threatening condition, and her kidneys began to fail. She went into cardiac arrest for six minutes, according to her family. She was transferred to the UMC Lions Burn Care Center that Saturday, where she has remained for nearly two weeks.

Eighth surgery

Ashleigh, who underwent her eighth surgery earlier this week, remains on kidney dialysis. The infection in her body extended from her rib cage down to her knees, said her mother, who described her wounds as “devastating.”

Citing concerns about Ashleigh’s privacy, family and friends have declined to give the name of the clinic where she had surgery or to describe the nature of the procedure.

Necrotizing fasciitis infects the body’s fascia, which is “the connective tissue that goes between the muscles and the organs,” said Denise Zabriskie, a wound care nurse and an assistant professor at Touro University Nevada in Henderson, the state’s largest medical school. “Bacteria thrives on that fascia, and it travels quickly through the body, so it affects the muscles, the organs and even blood vessels. As it travels, it gives off this toxin that destroys tissues … (and) everything in its path.”

Once the infection begins, it typically has to be treated through the removal of tissue to stop the infection from spreading further, she said. The infection can result in deformity, amputation and death.

The bacteria causing necrotizing fasciitis usually enters the body through a break in the skin, which could be a surgical incision, a puncture or even a paper cut, she said.

“Did it happen in the facility, (or) did it happen in the environment (outside the facility)? I don’t think we’re ever going to know,” she said.

However, government health investigators could review other cases treated at the surgical facility that day for other infections, she said, noting that “free-standing surgical centers or clinics all have initiatives to prevent surgical site infections.”

State may investigate

The Nevada Department of Health and Human Services will investigate complaints regarding medical facilities, a spokeswoman said.

“At this time a complaint has not been received and an investigation has not begun since we have insufficient information to assign the case,” said spokeswoman Shannon Litz.

The department can look at “whether a health care facility is causing a high rate of infections, not necessarily the bacteria(s) causing the infection,” she said.

“The bacteria could have been contracted within the health care facility if they had another patient with that bacteria and the proper infection prevention practices (hand hygiene, proper use and disposal of personal protective equipment, proper disinfection or sterilization of medical equipment, etc.) were not followed,” she said. “Bacteria can be spread from patient to patient or health care worker to patient.”

Necrotizing fasciitis itself is rarely contagious, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The infection is fatal for up to one in three people who contract it. About 700 to 1,200 cases are documented each year in the U.S., though the CDC said this figure is likely underestimated.

A GoFundMe account has been set up to defray Ashleigh’s medical expenses. It has raised nearly $15,000.

A post on Ashleigh’s GoFundMe page Tuesday states, “Today, Ashleigh woke up feeling strong and determined. With assistance she was able to stand and move her legs for the first time today. …

“The journey continues to have many ups and downs. The family continues to be grateful for everyone’s support and prayers through this difficult time.”

Contact Mary Hynes at mhynes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0336. Follow @MaryHynes1 on Twitter.

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