Monday, June 9, 2003

Runner battles flesh-eating bacteria

By Mark Coomes
The Courier-Journal

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - On the last day of a 40-year run of virtually perfect health, David Klein went on a 10-mile run. It was the last time he would ever take his fluid stride, or anything else, for granted.

Four months later, still weak from a ferocious infection that nearly killed him, a man who had been one of the fastest distance runners in Louisville needed 20 minutes just to walk around the block.

He was ecstatic.

"I was close to tears, to tell you the truth," Klein said. "To me, that was the start on the road to recovery."

Klein had no idea how hard and long his road would be. Or how much help he would get.

He needed every bit of it to conquer the near-fatal infestation of Group A streptococcus, commonly known as the flesh-eating bacteria. The organism devoured a portion of Klein's left forearm, requiring a series of surgical repairs and a drug therapy with side effects that ultimately led to Klein having his right hip replaced.

"It has been a little over seven years now of illness, surgeries, recovery, rehab, more surgeries, more recovery, more rehab," Klein said. "But with the support of some close friends and family, I've gotten both physically and emotionally stronger every time."

Klein, now 47, is in better shape than men half his age, his artificial hip and ravaged but fully functional forearm notwithstanding. He lifts weights twice a week, routinely takes 70-mile bike rides and hikes the Appalachian Trail and other grueling routes whenever he can.

Last summer, bowing to the wishes of his wife and doctors, Klein finally gave up running, a bone-jarring activity that punishes natural and man-made joints alike.

On Jan. 28, 1996, 10 days after his 40th birthday, Klein felt an uncomfortable numbness in his left elbow and forearm. It was troubling enough that he sought treatment at a hospital for the first time in his life.

Klein was admitted to Jewish Hospital early on a Wednesday morning. By Thursday, his fever was soaring, his blood pressure plunging and his body swelling from an exceedingly rare case of invasive GAS disease.

Looking "like the Michelin man," Klein said, he was rushed to intensive care, put on life support and induced into a coma.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, Group A streptococcus (GAS) is a relatively common, fairly harmless bacteria carried on the skin and in the throat. But when it invades the lungs, muscles or bloodstream, the infection can be deadly.

That Thursday night, after reviewing the latest lab results, Klein said a doctor "basically handed my wife the phone and said, 'Call your family because your husband is going to die tonight."'

It was a false alarm, though hardly unwarranted.

"David was in desperate straits," said Bob Korfhage, Klein's best friend and longtime workout partner. "When I got to the hospital, he was swelled up like a balloon and red as a beet. I don't know how he pulled through."

After three days in a coma, Klein awoke to hear his team of doctors discussing the case with amazement.

"They were saying things like, 'I've never seen anybody so far gone,' and 'We'd done everything we could,"' Klein said.

Doctors are not sure how Klein caught the bacteria.

Full recovery began with excruciating treatments to clean and remove the dead tissue from Klein's forearm.

Klein had another surgery on his arm in December 1996, then another in January 1998. The end result: Except for scars and skin grafts, Klein's arm is as good as new.

By 1999, the steroids prescribed for Klein's arm had caused enough tissue damage in his right hip that Klein, tired of the pain and the limited mobility, was actually looking forward to hip-replacement surgery.

Six months after the surgery, Klein embarked on his own physical-therapy routine, which consisted of tramping up and down stairwells for as long and as often as he could stand.

"It got me back in shape to run again, and almost at the level I was running before my illness," Klein said. "I was glad to get back out there. Being a runner probably saved my life, so the sport and the people are like a lifeline to me."

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