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Alexis Hanford, 16, contracted a flesh-eating bacteria after cutting her leg while on vacation about two months ago. After four weeks in Children's Hospital and 17 surgeries, Alexis is still recovering. Here, Alexis returns to Whitman High School on October 12, 2012, to be crowned homecoming princess.

Eva Russo, Washington Post

Teen recovers from flesh-eating disease

  • Article by: VALERIE STRAUSS
  • Washington Post
  • October 13, 2012 - 8:20 PM

The Homecoming Court candidates stood expectantly on the wooden gym floor at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md., waiting to hear who would be crowned.

All but one.

Alexis Hanford sat in her wheelchair, her left leg ramrod straight in a brace swaddled in pink-and-black leopard-print padding. When Alexis was declared the Homecoming Princess, a student placed a crown of pink feathers atop her head.

Just six weeks before, the 16-year-old lay in a hospital bed at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., sweating with a fever of 104 degrees as she battled a rare and especially vicious strain of necrotizing fasciitis -- known as flesh-eating disease. To save her left leg and her life, she had 17 operations to cut away dead skin and muscle and to try to eradicate the bacteria.

On July 25 near Ukiah, Calif., Alexis and her family were enjoying a family reunion in a remote area. Alexis dropped from a tree swing into a lake and a tree gashed her left leg.

At a hospital, doctors pulled wood from the wound, cleaned the area and stitched her up. Days later, she was back in Bethesda when the skin around her leg turned colors and swelled. "My leg burst. ... My pain level went from a 3 out of 10 to 10 out of 10 in a second and started rising from there," Alexis said.

She ended up at Children's, where an emergency room doctor realized that she was suffering from a serious condition in which pressure can build up and block the flow of blood.

Within an hour, orthopedic surgeons were slicing open her leg to relieve the pressure. That's when the full extent of the infection and muscle loss was detected, doctors said.

Just a few months earlier, a Georgia woman made news when a flesh-eating infection -- contracted when a zip line cut her calf -- forced doctors to amputate her hands and feet.

Doctors put Alexis on antibiotics and she was wheeled into the operating room every few days so doctors could cut away dead muscle and tissue. In a novel intervention, beads of cement that were immersed in antibiotics were delivered directly to the wound and replaced during each surgery, said Roberta DeBiasi, acting chief of the pediatric infectious diseases division.

Eventually, the infection was eradicated, and Alexis went to a rehab hospital to start the long process back to full recovery.

That's where she turned 16. "It wasn't the sweet 16 I had been planning, but it was probably the best party I ever had," Alexis said.

Once a competitive soccer player, Alexis knows she has to learn how to walk again and will always have to use a small brace, she said. One day, she hopes to run again.

"Even though it can be frustrating to have to deal with this, there are always people who are worse off," she said. "I saw them in the hospital and in rehab. What we consider normal -- going to college, getting a job, getting married -- isn't going to happen for those people. ... It just makes you look at life differently."

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