A Painful, Mysterious Infection

A painful abscess on the back of the author’s thigh. Nathalie Walker photo

Pop quiz: What caused the big, red, swollen bump on my right thigh pictured here?

A) spider bite
B) pimple
C) bee sting
D) nobody knows
Answer: D

We all have our good weeks and then we have our bad weeks.

Two weeks ago my best friend got married awesome!

Then, my gung gung passed away, then the next day I learned my doctor (Dr. Christian Boyens in Kailua) also died. A good friend of mine was admitted into the hospital for heart failure (but is recovering) and, of course, we lost music icon Whitney Houston (who I grew up listening to).

The week was not starting so good. Then I was admitted to the ER for what turned into the most painful experience of my life (and I have two kids, including one who after 20 hours of pushing, eventually arrived via C-section).

So what is this big red bump on my leg?

“It’s an abscess, which is a pocket of infection (and happens when bacteria gets trapped under the skin and grows),” says Dr. Samantha Streater Bamber, who along with the nurses at Castle Medical Center’s ER took great care of me.

“It could’ve been either a cut on the skin or a mosquito bite that got infected, and what happens is the body walls off the infection from the rest of the body (with puss) and there’s the cellulitus, which is a skin infection, and that’s what makes it red and warm.”

Bamber says an abscess can occur with a number of things, such as an insect bite, ingrown hair, blocked oil gland, pimple, cyst or a puncture wound. That’s why it’s hard to pinpoint the exact cause of my infection.

After two shots of numbing medication and a shot of morphine, the doctor made an incision and drained the abscess while I screamed and cried into a pillow. It really was that painful.

I share this because I hope no one ever has to go through what I experienced. Unfortunately, it’s a pretty common sight in the ER.

“I see two or three cases a day during my shift,” says Bamber. “It’s rampant in Hawaii. I’m not sure if it’s the climate or the bacteria that lives here. I’m from New York, and we didn’t see it half as much as I see it here.”

Now, for the worst part. According to Bamber, there’s nothing you can do to prevent this from happening. “It doesn’t matter (if you have good hygiene or a clean house), these infections are caused by MRSA (methicillin-resistant staph aureus) bacteria,” she says.

MRSA can spread quickly throughout your body, so for any signs of a possible skin infection you should see a doctor right away before it gets worse.

My nurse told me that if I didn’t have the abscess drained and my infection treated (with antibiotics), it could’ve spread to other organs and parts of my body, and even lead to a sepsis, which can be fatal.

Yes, bacteria is everywhere, including on our bodies, and there’s nothing we can do about that.

But it’s still a good idea to keep life clean and simple practice proper handwashing; wipe down gym equipment before and after each use; de-clutter to minimize hiding places for uninvited critters; cough, sneeze and blow your nose into a tissue and throw it away immediately, and avoid sharing utensils, cups and dishes with other people.