VICTORIA — Harry Sandhu walked out of Royal Jubilee Hospital on Wednesday a changed man, 24 days after flesh-eating disease left him fighting for life and limb.
He boarded a ferry to begin his trip to Surrey, where he’ll stay with his parents for the weekend as he continues to recover from his near-death experience.
Until this month, Sandhu, 43, who has played soccer nationally, provincially and professionally, ran about seven kilometres every other day around the Cedar Hill chip trail, lifted weights in a gym and played soccer recreationally.
On March 31, he was playing soccer with the Saanich-based Gorge FC against the Cowichan 49ers for the Tony Grover Masters Cup at Royal Athletic Park in Victoria. An opposing player’s soccer cleat cut open what was already a small abrasion on his right shin.
Sandhu bandaged the bloody wound and kept playing. He has played in India, Honduras, Mexico and never been concerned about sports injuries. “I mean, what’s a cut?” Sandhu said.
He later realized the extent of the bloody gash and sat out the rest of the game. He took a long shower, wrapped his shin in a tensor bandage with ice, watched another game and went to dinner.
He thought no more of it.
In the morning, he woke about 8 to “intense projectile vomiting.” His shin was badly swollen. “I thought what is going on?” said Sandhu. “I tried to stand up and, oh my God, I was screaming at the top of my lungs.”
The pain was excruciating.
He phoned a friend to drive him to hospital.
Based on the pain and swelling, Sandhu thought he had broken his shin. Infection never entered his mind.
At the hospital, medical staff wasted no time. Sandhu was seen by doctors and whisked into emergency surgery.
Necrotizing fasciitis, commonly called flesh-eating disease, was on a path of destruction, dissolving fat, muscle and tissue from his right shin to his thigh.
If it had been allowed to continue, his vital organs would have been next.
Sandhu said his leg was sliced open to get at the infection.
Dr. Richard Stanwick, Island Health chief medical health officer, said with flesh-eating disease, bacteria enter a break in the skin and produce powerful toxins that help infiltrate tissue, destroying the tissue and decreasing blood flow. The tissue dies.
“At the microscopic level, the toxins being made are the deadly shock troops for the germs, killing the muscle cells, rapidly advancing the continued growth of the bacteria in the dead and dying tissue, causing even further local destruction and more toxin production,” said Stanwick.
If untreated, this lethal combination results in infected muscle dissolving and dying off, said Stanwick.
The disease is rare, but if it takes hold, it has a fatality rate of about 26 per cent.
It moves at such a rapid pace that amputation or cutting away most of the tissue around the infection is often necessary.
“Antibiotics alone are not fast enough or powerful enough to stop the infection, so they have to do emergency surgery,” said Dr. Dee Hoyano, medical health officer for Island Health.
The symptoms include swelling, redness and excruciating pain out of proportion to the size of the wound.
Sandhu said faced with all that was coming at him, he wasn’t the tough soccer player he imagined himself to be.
He was in tears from the pain, in tears over the thought of losing his leg or life, and in tears at the thought he might have left his nine-year-old daughter, Sahana, without a father.
“You bawl your eyes out,” said Sandhu. “ ‘I can’t go,’ I thought, ‘I have a kid’ — that’s what you fight for.”
Sandhu credits the swift and skilled action of infectious-disease specialist Dr. Eric Partlow and plastic surgeon Dr. Jason Gray with not only saving his limb and his life, but preserving the integrity of his right leg.
Sandhu would have three surgeries and now faces months of physiotherapy.
Where the bacteria came from is uncertain.
It could have already been on his skin and just needed a break in the skin to enter his system.
In general, the bacteria are more commonly found on the skin, nose or throat — rather than lurking in dirt or dirty items — and enters a wound, Hoyano said. Why and when it strikes is less understood.
Necrotizing fasciitis is caused by several kinds of bacteria, but more commonly it is a Group A streptococcus, said Hoyano.
Some of these bacteria also cause infections such as strep throat and impetigo. Usually, infections caused by these bacteria are mild.
But in rare cases, they can produce toxins that result in a dangerous infection.
Sandhu calls the near-death experience life-altering. “I didn’t want this to happen to me, but I think coming out of this has changed me for the better.”
He made a lot of hospital-bed pledges — to be more spiritual, coach more, return to Topaz Sikh Temple, volunteer more and educate kids in sport about washing and caring for abrasions.
“When you see death, it changes the way you think.”
He has also been changed by the outpouring of care he’s received from his family, church, soccer and school community.
Health officials advise practising good hygiene and handwashing and paying attention to thoroughly cleaning cuts and scrapes with soapy water and covering them. If after an injury, there is sudden and disproportionate pain, swelling, heat, fever, chills, vomiting and diarrhea, seek immediate emergency medical assistance.
An online fundraising page has been set up for Sandhu, who is on unpaid leave from his job in education while he recovers.