GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - A second case of the flesh eating disease has surfaced on the coast. This time a young woman who beat cancer as a child is fighting a new battle, after having her leg cut off to save her life.
In an unthinkable turn of events, a day on the beach in Biloxi with family turned tragic after a young woman tested the water temperature by dipping her feet into the Mississippi Sound. Less than 36 hours later, her leg was amputated. Jennifer McLeland, 25, wanted to share her story in order to help warn others about the risks. We caught up with her at Memorial Hospital at Gulfport where the West Monroe, Louisiana resident was treated. Jennifer has now started the grueling process of rehabilitation after losing her leg April 8th.
"It was a big shock," she said. "The doctors woke me up and told me I didn't have a leg. They had to take my leg off and I was feeling around for it saying this can't be happening, but it was."
Jennifer and her husband, Nicholas, were spending a couple of days in Biloxi with family. She said her feet were in the water less than 30 seconds.
"I just got in barely enough to check the temperature."
That night her ankle was sore. The next morning her ankle was swollen and red, and the pain was severe. They went to the hospital that afternoon.
Jennifer said the first hospital they went to was unable to treat her and she was transferred to Memorial Hospital at Gulfport.
"Thankfully, the diagnosis was quickly made and treatment started."
But the infection was spreading fast, and by morning her leg was amputated in order to save her life from the unrelenting bacteria that was killing all of the skin and tissue in her left leg. It was difficult news for her husband to hear.
"I was very emotional about it because I was unaware of how she would take it. And before the operation, before they amputated her leg, it was still only a 50/50 chance it would save her life."
The Vibrio Vulnificus bacterium that lives in warm, salty, brackish waters had apparently entered her skin through a small abrasion between her toes. It caused an infection that quickly progressed to necrotizing fasciitis, known as flesh eating disease.
Jennifer said, at this point, she's not angry. She's thankful.
"At first, it was pretty hard. I didn't know how to take it. But now I'm thankful I'm alive and I take it day by day."
Jennifer and Nicholas said they had never heard about the risks of Vibrio Vulnificus, even though her battle with leukemia as a young 7-year-old put her at higher risk of complications. That's because it's more likely to spread and become serious in people with compromised immune systems.
Nicholas hopes others learn from their story.
"We didn't think of anything like this ever happening. We thought it was minor. People need to know about the risks."
Despite the tragic turn of events, this young woman who already beat the odds fighting cancer as a child has managed to maintain courage and composure as she faces even more adversity. Nicholas has been by her side since the infection started and said he knows his wife is up to the challenge.
"Out of everybody it could've happened to, I think she will take it better than anyone else could. She's strong. I'm probably leaning on her more than she's leaning on me."
And while the pain and loss may seem like too much for a young couple to endure, both are finding strength through their obvious love for each other, their faith, and support from family and friends. Jennifer said having that support makes all the difference.
"I'm thankful I had my husband and family here to support me and pull me through this."
They have a long road ahead of them, but they are thankful she's alive. Jennifer said they are ready for whatever comes her way.
"It is what it is. There's nothing you can do about it, so you just have to take it day by day and do your best and be strong."
Jennifer was discharged from Memorial Hospital April 30. She hopes to be able to get a prosthetic leg in about three months, after her leg wound heals and she's stronger. The couple has no health insurance. If you'd like to help them purchase a prosthetic leg and cover other medical and rehab costs, a benefit bank account is set up at First Bank for Jennifer Mcleland. Friends have also set up a fundraising site that's taking donations: www.gofundme.com/JenniferMcleland