How Strep Throat Symptoms Led To Amputated Hands And Feet

Kevin Breen strep throat amputation septic shock

Kevin Breen is lucky to be alive. The 44-year-old was suffering with stomach pains and feeling generally “off” on Christmas Day, so he went to the hospital. It turns out Kevin had contracted an extremely rare case of strep throat, which almost killed him. Sadly, it cost him his hands and his feet.

The Washington Post reported that after two days of vague flu-like symptoms, Kevin Green started experiencing razor-sharp stomach pains that were so powerful he could no longer walk.

A normally healthy and active man, the Grand Rapids, Michigan, resident had to admit he was now feeling quite ill. At the emergency room Kevin was tested for strep throat and flu which returned negative results, so he was sent home with pain relieving pills and nausea medication.

“They just didn’t work. I felt worse the next morning, and I said, ‘We gotta go to the hospital.’ Something just wasn’t right.”

That’s when doctors realized something was very wrong with their patient: Breen had contracted strep throat, an extremely rare version that would come close to killing him. In the hospital, doctors really had no idea what was wrong, so after 24 hours and checking the results of a C.T. scan, Breen was rushed into exploratory surgery thinking he may have ruptured his ulcer. What they discovered was confusing and shocking, said his wife Julie.

“They opened him up and found one and a half liters of infected pus in his abdominal region. We met with the surgeon after surgery and she sat us down and said, ‘I’ve never seen this before and I don’t like it, I don’t know what it is.'”

Elizabeth Steensma is an acute care surgeon at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids, and she said infections of the abdomen are rare. When doctors find that much material in someone’s abdomen it’s usually due to a punctured organ, but because they couldn’t find any holes they were unable to explain the build-up of pus. A sample of the material was sent to a microbiology lab for testing, and at the same time, they started to notice a bright red rash on Kevin Breen’s torso.

Then finally they had a clue: they discovered that Kevin and Julie Breen’s son had recently caught strep throat. A culture came back positive for strep and Dr. Steensma was able to confirm that Kevin had contracted the infection. They determined that the strep had traveled from his throat to his stomach, a journey so rare that it had only occurred in 32 other cases, most of these being female. Kevin’s strain of strep was extremely strong, leaving his body unable to defend itself.

“It’s estimated that there are over one million cases per year, and this is only the second case that has ever been reported of strep traveling from a male patient’s throat to his stomach.”

Even though the problem had been identified, this was just the beginning of the battle for Kevin Breen. Within hours his infection caused him to go into severe septic shock and his body began to shut down. Julie was advised to call family members and let them know Kevin may not survive.

“You’re never prepared to hear those words from a doctor.”

Steensma said Breen’s situation was one of the most alarming she’d ever encountered as a doctor.

“He had multi-system organ failure and needed a ventilator. He had renal failure and acute kidney injury and liver injury and abnormalities in coagulation of his blood clotting. His blood pressure was so profoundly low, he pretty much required maximum doses of three medications to maintain it. He was fighting for his life.”

She also noted that Kevin’s kidneys had begun to shut down and he now required a continual fusion of antibiotics.

And while the blood pressure medication was keeping Kevin alive, the side-effect was devastating: the medication was redirecting blood flow to his organs, thus shutting off blood to his extremities, resulting in tissue death (necrosis) of his hands and feet.

Several days after surgery Kevin began showing signs of recovery, and by the end of January he left intensive care and was transferred to an acute rehabilitation hospital where dialysis was stopped.

This week Kevin has undergone the first of four surgeries to partially amputate both of his feet, his left hand, and multiple fingers on his right hand. And now, Kevin is speaking from his home a day after his first amputation surgery.

“The simple things like getting up from the couch to get a snack or grabbing a tissue to blow my nose, I can’t do those things without help. It’s frustrating, I’m not gonna lie, but I have hope that I’ll regain my mobility and the ability to take care of myself. I’m not going to let it beat me down.”

Elizabeth Steensma said her patient’s recovery is nothing short of amazing.

“I can’t even begin to tell you how grateful we all are that he’s doing so well. He’s home with his family. His kidneys have recovered. He’s off dialysis, and he’s regaining his life. That’s the best we could wish for him.”

Kevin Breen is no longer able to work, and his wife Julie, who was a fifth-grade teacher, is now the family’s sole breadwinner. Julie Breen said she has no idea what the future holds for them, but that when they reflect on the events of the past few months they’re very grateful.

“Things are hard, but at the end of the day I have a husband, and my kids have a dad.”

Kevin is already thinking about prosthetic limbs.

“I’d like to be able to water ski again. That was a huge passion of mine. I may not be able to do it at the same level, but just getting out there would be special.”

Today reported that Doctor Elizabeth Steensma said Kevin Breen was one of the sickest patients she had ever seen. When Kevin’s son had been treated for a recent strep throat infection, Kevin himself had gone to the doctor to see if his sore throat was caused by the same bacteria; however, testing completed in the doctor’s office returned negative.

For patients like Kevin Breen, doctors say the only treatment is to offer supportive care and pray for the best until such time as the immune system quiets down and the danger passes. Julie Breen, 33-year-old teacher, wife, and mother of three children, feared the worst.

“It was very, very hard. I started planning in my head how I was going to tell my kids.”

Kevin finally awoke after surviving the deadly strep infection; however, his hands and feet had already started turning black, meaning that the tissue was dying. Today, Kevin understands that at the very least he’ll lose his fingers and parts of his feet, ensuring that life in the future will be very different for the active, athletic 44-year-old.

Julie said their story should serve as a reminder for everyone to be aware of their body, and to not delay going to the doctor if something is wrong.

“We’re trying very hard to be positive and thankful. No doubt this will be life-changing. We just have to figure out how to make the best of things with the long road ahead of us.”

Doctor Neil Fishman is a professor and infectious disease specialist at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. According to Doctor Fishman, sore throats are caused by viruses and shouldn’t be treated with antibiotics. There are specific ways of distinguishing bacterial infection from a viral infection; for example, a high fever is a major warning sign.

“A lot of viral syndromes don’t produce high fevers.”

However, someone suffering from a sore throat, with a rash that’s hot and tender, should seek immediate medical attention.

“If you notice that your arm or leg or another part of your body is getting warm and red and swollen you see a doctor: the earlier the better.”

Doctor Fishman said that, fortunately, strep infections can be treated with penicillin. And as for Kevin Breen, he’s very lucky to be alive.

Kevin Breen’s family have set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for Kevin’s surgeries and rehabilitation More than $215,000 has already been raised via the crowdfunding site.

[Featured Image by Julie Breen/GoFundMe]