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Bradenton woman fighting for life after contracting flesh-eating bacteria, family says

A Bradenton woman is facing an uphill battle against a flesh-eating bacteria that has taken a leg and is now attacking her organs, according to family members who say she most likely contracted the bacteria while on Anna Maria Island.

Kelli Brown Whitehead, according to family members, went wading into the Gulf of Mexico on Cortez Beach, just north of Bridge Street, in the last week of October. By Oct. 28, the family was pleading for help as Whitehead lay in a Blake Medical Center hospital bed fighting for her life.

“It spread fast and she lost all of her left leg and is on a ventilator and having kidney dialysis,” Whitehead’s mother, Joan Smart Brown, wrote on a Facebook fundraising page. Brown flew in from Tennessee on Nov. 4 as doctors gave warning that Whitehead’s time might be slipping away.

Brown said her daughter has been a diabetic her entire life, which made her susceptible to necrotizing fascitis.

Though the family could not say for certain that Whitehead contracted the bacteria at the spot she was wading, the symptoms showed up within a day or two of getting in the water. Family members say it began with a feeling of a painful cramped muscle in her foot and by the time she went to the hospital, it had begun to attack her leg.

Family said it went from a pain in her foot, to losing her leg, to now fighting for her life in a matter of a little more than a week.

The Bradenton Herald reached out to Brown on Thursday, but has not received a response. However, Brown posted Wednesday on Facebook: “I went to see her and she opened her eyes and smiled.”

Kelli via facebook.jpg
A photo of Keili Brown Whitehead from a 2016 Facebook post shows happier times. Whitehead recently contracted a flesh-eating bacteria and according to the family, got it while wading in the Gulf of Mexico off of Anna Maria Island. Provided Via Facebook

Three hours prior to that post, Brown wrote that Whitehead “is about the same. Does not respond. It’s so sad to see her laying in bed unresponsive. Keep the prayers coming.”

Perhaps those prayers are helping. On Thursday morning, Brown posted: “I went in to see Kelli and she opened her eyes and held my hand. I told her everybody loved her and was praying for her. She is still very sick.”

Brown said she is waiting on her daughter’s doctor for the latest information, but “Keep praying.”

Whitehead’s husband is on disability and the pair essentially live off his monthly income, according to family. The fundraising page has set a $3,000 goal to help with the family’s bills. As of Thursday morning, 29 people have contributed a total of $2,000 toward that goal.

In June, 77-year-old Ellenton resident Lynn Fleming died from a flesh-eating bacteria after wading into the water off Coquina Beach on Anna Maria Island. Fleming’s death came on the heels of a rash of flesh-eating bacteria cases across Florida.

By July, warnings about how to avoid the bacteria made headlines across the state, including that flesh-eating bacteria isn’t just in the water, it can colonize in the sand.

Like Fleming, Whitehead contracted a bacteria associated with Group A Streptoccous, a bacteria that can cause common illnesses such as strep throat, but can also turn deadly and scientists aren’t sure why.

The infection spreads rapidly and symptoms include:

  • A red or swollen area of skin that spreads quickly.
  • Severe pain, including pain beyond the area of the skin that is red or swollen.
  • Fever.

Later symptoms include:

  • Ulcers, blisters, or black spots on the skin.
  • Changes in the color of skin.
  • Pus or oozing from the infected area.
  • Dizziness.
  • Fatigue.
  • Diarrhea or nausea.

Those most at risk include people with:

  • Diabetes.
  • Kidney disease.
  • Cirrhosis of the liver.
  • Cancer.
  • Anyone with a compromised immune system.

The Centers for Disease Control reports that if anyone suspects they have, rapid treatment can make all the difference.

According to the CDC, there are many infections that look similar in the early stages, which can make diagnosis difficult. It’s important to communicate to your doctor what you were doing at the time a possible infection was first noticed. If a doctor suspects flesh-eating bacteria, they aren’t likely to wait for test results before taking action.

Preventative steps for at-risk individuals including those with open wounds are:

  • Avoid hot tubs.
  • Avoid swimming pools.
  • Avoid all natural bodies of water.
Breaking News/Real Time Reporter Mark Young began his career in 1996 and has been with the Bradenton Herald since 2014. He has won more than a dozen awards over the years, including the coveted Lucy Morgan Award for In-Depth Reporting from the Florida Press Club and for beat reporting from the Society for Professional Journalists to name a few. His reporting experience is as diverse as the communities he covers.
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