DETROIT — A Michigan man is feeling grateful after surviving a strep throat infection that led to amputations of parts of his hands and feet and nearly cost his life.
Kevin Breen, 44, developed an extremely rare strep infection shortly after his son fought off a case of strep throat. The infection, caused by streptococcal bacteria, typically affects the throat and the tonsils.
Around Christmas, Breen began to develop flu-like symptoms, and he visited an urgent care clinic with stomach pain. He tested negative for flu and strep. But his pain did not improve, and he went to the emergency room.
While there, his stomach began to enlarge and harden. Hospital staff thought it was a mild case of acute pancreatitis, according to Breen’s wife, Julie.
He showed signs of shock, and doctors decided to take him into surgery to find the cause of his problems.
During the surgery, doctors found 3 liters of pus surrounding his organs. They did not know where it was coming from.
“Normally, we have to look for things such as perforations. We look for holes in the stomach or in the small bowel of the colon, and nothing was found,” said Dr. Elizabeth Steensma, an acute care surgeon at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
After surgery, he developed a rash on his chest. Doctors feared it could be streptococcal toxic shock syndrome, a severe illness associated with streptococcal infection.
They took samples and discovered the bacteria that cause strep throat. Based on the sample, the rash on Breen’s chest and his history, Steensma said, the pieces finally came together.
“That strep organism, that is really common, somehow that went from his pharynx in his throat and made its way into his abdominal cavity,” she said.
Breen went into multisystem organ failure and severe septic shock.
Doctors worked quickly to treat him. The team “worked around the clock minute by minute for the next several days trying to keep him alive and get him home to his family,” Steensma said.
Still, they weren’t able to save his fingers and toes.
A rare, extreme case
Breen’s severe case of septic shock, the toxins from the strep organism and medications he was on led to the need to amputate parts of his feet and hands, according to Steensma.
“It is extremely rare,” she said.
For most who develop strep throat, it’s little more than a temporary bother. But occasionally, strep can get into the bloodstream and cause a serious infection, according to Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious disease at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
“As (strep) travels through the body, it can set up housekeeping, if you will, in various locations in the body and cause damage at those locations,” he said. Sepsis, a life-threatening complication caused by an infection, usually follows, and the body will go into shock.
Blood will then move to essential functions, such as the brain or heart, and away from blood vessels in the periphery. When this happens, the hands and toes begin to die, which sometimes prompts the need for amputation, Schaffner said.
Although these severe cases of strep are rare, he recommends seeking medical attention when an individual rapidly begins to feel unwell from a sore throat.
Symptoms of strep throat include pain when swallowing, swollen tonsils and lymph nodes, fever over 101 degrees Fahrenheit (38.3 degrees Celsius) and white or yellow spots on the back of a bright red throat. Strep throat can be passed between people through breathing, coughing or sneezing.
Handwashing is an effective way to reduce the risk of spreading the infection to others.
Road to recovery
Breen is back home with his family and on the road to recovery. He will be receiving a series of amputations, an estimated four total. Toes on both feet have already been amputated.
“I’ve become a full-time nurse,” Julie Breen said. “We have quite a road ahead of us, but we’re very, very thankful and very happy that we have a road ahead.”
Kevin and Julie Breen are also thankful for the support they have received throughout his illness.
“We’re just so thankful for the doctors that took care of him and the amount of prayers that went up,” Julie Breen said. “We really feel strongly that God kept him alive for reason.”
Even though Kevin Breen acknowledges that he has a long road ahead, he is keeping a positive attitude.
“We’re just very grateful for all the prayers and all the support we’ve been getting from our families, friends and our church,” he said.