Campaign steps up to bat to stop staph infections

August 19, 2008|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun reporter

Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona went to the hospital for routine arthroscopy on both knees in 2002. But the aftermath of his surgery was anything but routine. After being out of the hospital for two weeks, his body was attacked by a staph infection that nearly cost him both legs and his life.

"It overwhelmed me," said Francona, who spoke yesterday at the Strike Out Infection program, part of a national campaign spearheaded by Francona and Covidien Ltd., a health-care product company, at the Baltimore Convention Center. "I was in intensive care for seven weeks. I just laid there in pain. I'm the perfect person to talk about this because I didn't know what I had and I didn't know what questions to ask. I didn't know there were questions I should ask. I didn't know how to describe the pain, and that caused more problems."

Francona's goal, and that of every speaker on yesterday's program, is to spread awareness and increase knowledge of how to prevent the infection. The campaign's Web site, www.strikeoutinfection.com, explains in easily understandable language what a staph infection is, ways to prevent it and what questions a patient should be asking.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus infections are skin infections that can appear as pustules or boils that are often red, swollen and painful, or have pus or other drainage. The infections can be spread by sharing towels and razors or sports equipment and through skin contact.

Dr. Laura Herrera, deputy commissioner of the Baltimore Health Department, said getting the message out is particularly important because, according to a study reported in the October Journal of the American Medical Association, Baltimore had three times more MRSA cases than other jurisdictions studied.

"I've been in coaching a long time," Morgan State coach Donald Hill said. "I'd seen maybe one or two staph infections in all my time in football. But three years ago, we put down a new synthetic turf on our football field, and we began to have three to four cases a week."

Hill's response was to disinfect the showers, disinfect the equipment, make sure the uniforms were washed daily - all preventive measures still being taken at Morgan State - but it did not stop the infections from occurring.

"We went from hugging to a nice wave," the coach said. "Players didn't want to touch each other. It wasn't until our trainer, Todd Smith, said he was going to try to disinfect the field that we got it under control."

Athletes are prime candidates for the infection because they come in contact with artificial surfaces that retain germs, they share exercise equipment, showers and locker rooms, and when on the field or court, they come in contact with other players.

But also at risk is almost everyone who goes to public places or gets a cut or scrape.

Orioles Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer said he cut his finger six weeks ago and wound up on antibiotics.

"You know, one day you cut yourself and you think, 'It's a cut.' I washed my hands, I shaved. I wasn't rubbing dirt in it, but the next day it's a raging infection," he said. "Just like that. It's doctors and antibiotics. And it had just been a little cut.

" ... Earl Weaver, four or five years ago, went in for a normal arthroscopic knee surgery and ended up spending three months recovering from a staph infection," Palmer said.

"I know I need to go have my own knee repaired, and it's scary because you hear the horror stories and you never know. I'm here talking about this because this is something that affects all of us."

sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

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