Bacterial meningitis caused Kyla Winters of Carmel Valley to lose both her legs to amputation but she can walk again and still considers herself lucky.
In the summer of 2009, she was with a group of friends when she suddenly felt awful and told them to get her to a hospital, quick. She recalls telling them somewhat prophetically that she was dying and that they needed to call an ambulance. She was rushed to Scripps Mercy Hospital emergency department in Hillcrest.
“Within 24 hours I had kidney failure,” says Winters, 39, who relies on the memory of her twin sister to tell her story. Much of what happened for the next three months that Winters remained in the hospital is a blur. She recalls nothing of her stint in the hospital intensive care unit (ICU), partly, doctors explained, because of a condition called ICU psychosis, when the body undergoes such daily stress that the memory tends to fail.
“I was in ICU four weeks,” said Winters. “I don’t remember being in the hospital.”
Doctors had conducted numerous tests, a CT scan, and x-rays and were fairly certain that there was no brain damage, said Liana Thomas, Winters’ twin sister who took the first flight to San Diego upon hearing of her sister’s hospitalization.
“We were all worried because mentally she would be awake but kind of delirious, and meningitis often will affect the brain,” Thomas said.
Doctors in the emergency department quickly administered antibiotics. One more hour without medical intervention and she might have died, says Winters, a couple hours earlier and she might now have more limbs.
“You die very, very quickly,” Winters said, describing what she later learned about the disease.
Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord and can result from a bacterial, fungal, or viral infection. Bacterial meningitis like that which Winters experienced is a respiratory condition that is acutely life threatening. Also known as meningococcemia, symptoms include high fever, headaches, a rash, and stiffness in the neck.
Winters learned later that she caught the meningitis strain from another person. “You catch it like a cold,” she said. “I was run down. I’m sort of a workaholic.”
Winters was hospitalized for more than three months. Before turning the corner to recovery, her blood pressure plummeted several times and she suffered three cardiac arrests and respiratory and kidney failure, resulting in amputation of both legs and all fingers. She was dying from the meningitis and doctors at one point gave her less than 10 percent chance of survival, she said.
The effects of meningitis left her legs, fingers and thumbs septic with disease that ultimately required amputation. Winters giggles slightly and explains that she has gross photos of her blackened limbs before they were amputated in October of 2009.
“Basically all the blood rushes to your organs to try to save your life,” she said.
She has since had several operations to stretch skin and sculpt what is left of her hands in a way that allows her to grasp objects. A metal plate implanted in her hand serves somewhat like the thumb that was amputated.