Elizabeth Ruppert keeps beating the odds – in ways both good and bad.
The Elmira resident has twice survived near-death experiences with serious bacterial infections and has emerged from them with few scars and her family and faith stronger than before.
Ruppert first contracted flesh-eating disease – medically known as necrotizing fasciitis – in 2005, a few weeks after the birth of her second child. She had flu-like symptoms and a painful red spot the diameter of a drinking glass on her thigh. She called Telehealth and the nurse ordered her to get to the hospital immediately.
The nurse suspected flesh-eating disease, which meant time was of the essence. The bacterial infection destroys tissue and can cause death within 12 to 24 hours. Between 90 and 200 cases are treated in Canada every year, and 20 to 30 per cent of them are fatal.
Ruppert whispered a prayer that there wouldn’t be a long wait, and they were in the emergency room within 20 minutes. Ruppert was put on an IV, and doctors told her they would have to cut her leg open.
“All I could think of was ‘I’m not going to be able to wear a bikini anymore,’” Rupert admitted.
Four weeks and eight surgeries later, she woke from a drug-induced coma to learn doctors had removed two of the abductor muscles in her leg. She also learned she had gone into cardiac arrest, and it took her medical team an hour to resuscitate her.
“They did not believe I was going to live,” she said.
Ruppert was left with a limp, a knee that could barely flex, and permanent damage to her vision. When she went into cardiac arrest, the blood supply to her optic nerve was cut. Now she has no peripheral vision on the right side, and there’s a blind spot in the lower part of her left eye. She has trouble reading people’s expressions from across the room because she can only focus on one part of their face at a time.
Although the problems with her vision are frustrating, Ruppert counts herself blessed. Her doctors feared she might have much more extensive brain damage and not be able to walk or talk or show emotion. And she can still drive, which is another blessing.
Doctors suspect she contracted the disease through the scar from the episiotomy she had when delivering daughter Kamryn. Flesh-eating disease is caused by a number of bacteria, most commonly – and in Ruppert’s case – by group A streptococcus. The same bacteria cause strep throat and in rare instances, can cause serious illnesses like pneumonia, meningitis and blood poisoning.
Ruppert said she was perfectly healthy before she got sick and was soon back to “a modified 100 per cent.” After three years of physiotherapy, she was able to walk without a limp and to bend her knee through a full range of motion. The knee is still stiff; it’s hard for her to sit cross legged or play on the floor with her kids, but it’s much more than her physiotherapist thought she would ever do.
“They claim I’m a real fighter, I’m very determined,” Ruppert said. “But I don’t think that way. I didn’t think I had a choice; I was just thinking I have to do this.”
After beating all expectations in her recovery, Ruppert defied the odds once again – this time in a less pleasant way.
Last July, she developed flu-like symptoms again. She thought she had caught H1N1, which was the strain of flu circulating at the time. Within 24 hours she was back in the emergency room and learned she was septic.
“My family doctor told me there was a one-in-a-million chance I would get this again,” Ruppert said.
Being one in a million saw her in the hospital for two and a half weeks. On top of fighting off the bacterial infection, she survived a bout of pneumonia, once again defying medical expectations.
“All the specialists I’ve met have said that I’m very unique to them – which you don’t really want,” Ruppert said.
If she sometimes feels she’s being tested by God, Ruppert has emerged from the ordeal with her faith stronger than before. She also has a deeper appreciation for her family and her community, after seeing how they rallied to support her.
“My husband has been a rock,” she said.
Her husband Scott stayed at the hospital every night through her long coma and recovery. Her mother-in-law, brother-in-law and sister-in-law moved in to take care of their kids, Colson and Kamryn. People from their church brought meals every night, mowed the lawn, and stayed with her husband while he kept vigil by her hospital bed. People as far away as Japan prayed for her and her family.
That faith has helped her through bouts of self-pity and feelings of ‘why me?’
“I completely trust God and believe fully that he has a plan for my life.”