AVA, IL (KFVS) - Savannah Smith has been to hell and back.
A decade-long heroin addiction brought her to the brink of death more than a dozen times. But it was a bacterium called Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, better known as MRSA, that brought her to her knees.
“I have overdosed anywhere between 15 and 20 times,” said Smith. “Using IV drugs put the MRSA in my blood, which attacked my vital organs. So, the heroin didn’t kill me, but the MRSA was about to.”
That’s no exaggeration. When Smith was admitted to a northern Illinois hospital in early December, she was unconscious, and put on a ventilator. Her prognosis wasn’t good. Doctors found MRSA in her heart and lungs.
“We’ve officially been through a hell of a lot,” said Smith’s mother, Carla Poenitski of Ava, Illinois.
Ironically, it was a song called “Heaven” by Kane Brown which helped Smith get through it.
“With her lifestyle being in the streets, she didn’t have much faith," said Poenitski. “This is a whole new realm for her – she’s learning God’s keeping her alive for something.”
Poenitski has been at her daughter’s side through all the ups and downs of the past few months, and there have been many. At age 30, Smith has undergone more drastic health crises than most people will experience in a lifetime.
“When she stroked, I was in the room with her,” said Poenitski. “She was screaming, 'my head hurts’ and then she started convulsing. And that’s when she had the stroke. They shooed me out of the room and called code.”
As the MRSA infection coursed through her bloodstream it spread throughout her body causing an abscess on her brain, a massive stroke and partial paralysis.
Doctors amputated one of her fingers. Later Smith had to undergo open-heart surgery to replace a valve because MRSA had taken over.
“They would give me antibiotics and it would kill the infection in my blood and lungs, but since it was on my heart it just kept going in a big circle. They would get rid of it and it would come back,” said Smith.
Smith’s situation, while extreme, is not as uncommon as you might think. From 2010-2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded a rapid increase in overdose deaths involving heroin which may indicate more opioid users were turning to injectable drugs.
In the same period, the CDC also noticed another frightening pattern. Data from six test sites across the United States showed an alarming, and steady increase in invasive MRSA infections among IV drug users.
The CDC concluded that IV drug users are 16.3 times more likely to contract invasive MRSA than the general public.
It’s a statistic that makes a lot of sense to Gautam Dantas, Ph.D. a professor of pathology and immunology at Washington University in St. Louis.
“You can go from that purposeful puncture providing the route of entry for MRSA getting beyond your body’s normal defense mechanisms,” Dr. Dantas said.
Just like viral pathogens like HIV, Dr. Dantas said bacterial MRSA can easily spread from one person to another by sharing needles.
“It doesn’t need to be very much,” said Dr. Dantas. “You don’t need to draw the blood necessarily, just the contact with that surface is enough to pick up enough to transfer it over.”
According to Dr. Dantas, what makes this super bug particularly scary is that MRSA lives happily in the nose and on the skin of about one percent of the population and generally causes no problems at all. He said no one really knows what makes this bug suddenly go bad. But when it does, it can turn deadly fast.
“If you have a bloodstream MRSA infection, if you’re in the 80,000 people in the U.S. you now have a one in eight chance of dying,” said Dr. Dantas, “That’s crazy. There are not a lot of infections out there where one in eight will die.”
Smith was nearly that one in eight.
“When she entered the hospital December 4, they didn’t think she would make it,” Poenitski said. “She was in that bad condition. I had a chaplain come in and he was praying with me. He was asking all kinds of questions about who Savannah is. He asked about her favorite song. I told him it was ‘Heaven.’ He came back four hours later with a female chaplain and a guitar. They sang to Savannah when she was in a coma. They sang her song. And she started to cry in the coma. Next day she woke up.”
Those chaplains were Arturo Guevara and Aneta Krzycka with the University of Illinois Chicago.
Poenitski said “Heaven” marked a turning point for her daughter. Smith started praying with the chaplains every day.
“She got to the point where she was saying the prayers,” said Poenitski. “I cried because that’s a big step for my daughter. Realizing God saved her life.”
Smith said that new found faith, and her family have given her the strength to fight through MRSA and the lingering effects of addiction.
“I think this pushed me over the edge,” Smith said. “It actually scared me enough to want to change. If this wouldn’t have happened, I would be doing the same stupid stuff. If it were up to me, I would be dead. But there’s got to be a reason I’m still here and I believe that reason would be God.”
Smith cut ties with the people she knew in the drug world. She’s focused on her recovery and becoming the mother she now wishes she would have been to her 9-year-old son.
MRSA is so lethal because it is resistant to most antibiotics. Dr. Dantas said it’s only a matter of time until it finds a way to become resistant to the handful of antibiotics which do work.
“Resistance is perhaps one of the most predictable parts of antibiotics and bacteria,” said Dr. Dantas.
Dantas and his team at Washington University combined three antibiotics together and found that even though they don’t work individually, a combination of the three worked together to kill MRSA.
“Individually by definition they don’t work against MRSA,” said Dr. Dantas. “We discovered that by combining them they have this trick that they play on MRSA where they target three related but yet distinct parts of what makes MRSA such a superbug. By knocking out these three otherwise redundant pathways, it massively compromises MRSA.”
Researchers found the combo confused MRSA enough on the cellular level that it may be able to delay resistance a little longer. The therapy is still in testing, but Dr. Dantas said it has shown 100 percent effectiveness against MRSA in the lab. Human trials have yet to begin, so it could still be years before the drug therapy can be given to patients.
She has set up a crowdfunding page through Facebook to solicit donations to help her pay for gas and lodging when she makes the more than five-hour drive to northern Illinois to help Smith recover from the devastating effects of her stroke, the still active MRSA infection, and her recovery from drug abuse.