MINNEAPOLIS – A Lonsdale, Minn. man thought he was suffering from the flu, but after his wife’s insistence, he went to the hospital and discovered he was hours from death. A flesh-eating bacteria ravaged his body and led to the loss of a leg.
Brian Strese, 42, is now recovering from the illness at Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC), where doctors amputated his right leg above the knee to save him from the fierce infection.
He remembers struggling with a high fever, sore throat, and back pain for more than a week when pain started to creep up his right leg.
“I told him from work, that's it, we are going to the hospital, and he said, 'No, no, no, I can wait until tomorrow,'” said Tanya Strese.
Later, at a hospital in Northfield, the couple realized the seriousness of the illness. Strese was transferred to Abbott Northwestern Hospital, then to Hennepin County Medical Center’s burn unit for treatment, and was in surgery later the night. It would be the first of seven surgeries.
“The first thing the surgeons said, 'You got him here, didn’t you?' I said yeah, and they said, 'You saved his life. He wouldn’t have been here tomorrow,'” said Tanya Strese.
Dr. Jon Gayken, a burn and trauma surgeon who treated Strese, said his illness stemmed from the Group A Strep bacteria, what doctors classify as necrotizing fasciitis, an infection that results in the death of the body’s soft tissue, spreading in the body in a matter of hours.
“Then, people become overwhelmed with it and die usually within a day. It’s super rare although it does gain a fair amount of notoriety when it happens,” said Dr. Gayken. “Then strep infections when they get in the wrong place and they get out of hand, for one reason or another, but it can happen to anybody and that’s what is scary about it, and that’s why it gains the attention it does.”
Dr. Gayken said the infection occurs in about 1 in 250,000 adults. At HCMC, he’s seen the infection stem from an area as small as a hangnail or cut, spreading even before his eyes on the operating table. After several surgeries trying to save Strese’s leg, it became apparent Strese needed an amputation to save his life. Strese was on a ventilator in the intensive care unit for weeks and was in full organ failure, suffering from sepsis.
“At the end of the day we had to do what we had to do to keep him alive,” said Dr. Gayken.
Strese doesn’t remember many of those weeks he was under care but says one of his first memories was learning about his leg.
“A nurse came in and said, 'You are going to be losing your leg.' It scared the heck out of me when I first found out,” said Strese.
But the couple knew the loss of his leg would bring the presence of the most infectious love they’ve ever known. Brian Strese said he immediately thought of his daughter Desirae, age 7, and all the memories he wants to share with her.
“Both of us feel blessed that he is still alive," said Tanya Strese. "People have asked me, 'How are you so positive?' I am thinking when you are four hours away from your husband dying, I can’t be anything but positive to have gone through all of this. Both of us feel confident he’s going to get back to four wheeling, painting for work, and taking care of Desirae.”
Strese is undergoing intense rehabilitation and will be fitted for a prosthetic leg and knows he faces a long road ahead, but is setting his sights on getting back home to Lonsdale. He credits his wife’s fast-acting decision and intuition that day to saving his life.
“She’s always right on, too. I am very very lucky, we have had a lot of support, a lot of thoughts and prayers that really made a difference,” said Brian Strese.
“Something said that day, he needs to go in,” said Tanya Strese.
A GoFundMe account is raising funds to cover Brian’s vast medical expenses, as he is self-employed as a painter and has been out of work for several months.
Learn more about necrotizing fasciitis on the CDC’s website.