A woman spent a month in a coma – died once – and lost ten percent of her flesh due to a rare fungal infection.
Carolina Bowen, 20, a type 1 diabetic, was admitted to hospital with a Rhizopus oryzae infection – a deadly fungus typically found in dirt and decaying matter.
She suffered septic shock, organ failure and flesh-eating Necrotizing fasciitis (NF) was developing in her left arm.
Carolina contracted the fungus through her insulin pump after she failed to wipe it with an alcohol swab, something she is adamant is her fault – and not that of the pump.
“Doctors really didn’t think I was going to pull through because they hadn’t seen this before,” said Carolina, a student at the College of Charleston, South Carolina, USA.
She spent a month in a medically induced coma in hospital in September 2019, and endured five surgeries – and even died during one of them.
“I aspirated and I very much remember dying,” Carolina said.
“I remember a door in front of me and a full moon illuminating it with water on the ground. Death was speaking to me and it was empathetic and telling me there was no shame in giving up.
“At first I was like, ‘I’m done’, but then I saw my life flash by all at once and I backed out of it.”
The infection got so bad that doctors seriously considered amputating Carolina’s arm at her shoulder.
Luckily, they were able to save it with debridement surgeries, in which chunks of the infected flesh are removed.
Carolina added: “The doctor started irrigating the wound with anti-fungal because the I.V. anti-fungals weren’t working for me. Somehow it worked. But the recovery was really rough.”
After being released from the hospital, Carolina moved back home and took a medical leave from being a sociology major to heal.
The nerves in her armpit and shoulder down to her elbow were cut out, causing her to lose most function in her arm and her muscles to atrophy.
“I was pretty dominant on my left side so I’ve had to relearn how to do a lot of things and I don’t use that arm often,” she said.
She refused skin grafts, letting her wound close without them.
“I opted to have no skin grafts because I did die during one of my surgeries, so I really didn’t want anymore surgical intervention,” she said.
“I’ve had this wound for about a year and three months and it’s almost closed up all the way.”
Now after over a year, Carolina said that her kidneys have mainly healed and her respiratory system is good again, the only issue being her left arm.
She added: “Doctors told me I’m the only living survivor of this fungal infection in the U.S. that did not have to have an amputation.
“I had an amazing team of doctors and surgeons who pulled together and saved my life because it was a race against the clock.”
Overall the experience has shown Carolina to appreciate life and all it brings.
“I was kind of on a destructive path before this, I didn’t care that much about my health,” she said.
“Dying really does remind you of your own mortality, that was a major takeaway for me and learning to appreciate the small things.”