Actor Alicia Cole has played many roles in her life. Even if you don't recognize her name right away, you will recognize her face. But it's been awhile since she showed up on movie or TV screens because her most current role is that of wronged, but hopeful patient.
In 2006, Alicia acquired necrotizing fasciitis (the flesh-eating bacteria) and other infections after routine surgery. Her story is shocking, but her attitude is inspirational. Because, despite every reason to be angry, Alicia is using her horrible hospital infection experience to create a legacy for the rest of us.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Alicia after we met at a healthcare quality conference. She's as delightful and knowledgeable as she is beautiful. And she's as candid as this role requires.
Here's our conversation:
Q. Describe Alicia Cole in early summer 2006. Who were you then? What were you doing? What were your hopes and dreams?
A. I was happy and carefree, doing what I loved, having a banner year as an actor, looking forward to my growing career.
There's some irony in the fact that the role I was playing at the time was as a doctor! I was working on a campaign against childhood obesity. My parents came to visit and I drove them past a sea of my billboards at every corner on La Brea Avenue. Acting builds on recognizability and I was enjoying some great success because of those billboards and the commercials.
Q. But you were having some medical troubles which led to the need for surgery. Tell me about the problems you were having.
A. Yes, I had fibroid tumors - not at all unusual for women. They were causing pain and heavy periods. They were getting in my way and I knew I needed to do something about them. At one point I tried acupuncture and it did help relieve the pain, but I knew that for the long term I needed to have those tumors removed, especially if I wanted to have a baby one day.
Q. How did you prepare for the surgery? What did you expect?
A. My doctor knew I was an athlete, and assured me that I would have no problems at all. I asked him if there was anything I could do to help my body to bounce back and he told me to be in the best shape I could. So I trained for my surgery the way an athlete would train. Sit-ups and push-ups, workouts and walking. I trained for my surgery the same way I trained for the LA Marathon.
I was told I would be hospitalized overnight - the surgery one day, overnight for observation, then home. Four weeks to recuperate, building up to light activity. It was supposed to be so easy that I told my parents not to come out. I told them it was no big deal.
Q. But it did turn out to be a big deal, didn't it? What you expected, and what happened, were two different things....
A. Yes - and little did we know. Once the surgery was finished, the doctor told us everything was fine, but I had trouble from the start. I had a fever when I left the operating room. The doctor told me that was normal, but later, others told me that I must have gotten the infection before I ever left the OR.
That night I started with sharp pains, and then began throwing up. The doctors told me it was the anesthesia. I was in a horrible rotation of painkillers and anti-nausea medication. Then I began wavering between chills - I was freezing! – and being hot and sweaty. They would check my incision, but it wasn't long before it began to swell. Finally, they decided they needed to keep me in the hospital. That's when I knew it wasn't normal. It scared me and changed my carefree, casual attitude. The hospital chaplain even came to comfort me.
Thank God my parents were there to advocate for me. Here I had told them not to worry about it - but they came anyway. I began developing sepsis and the swelling made me look pregnant. One of the nurses witnessed the progression of my infection and pulled my parents aside, saying she was risking her job by telling us - but that we needed to call in an infection specialist. I believe that saved my life.
On my fifth day in the hospital, my mother noticed a small black dot near my incision. She made the nurse call the doctor, despite the nurse's protests that it was really “no big deal”. By the time the doctor arrived an hour and a half later, that tiny black dot was the size of a quarter.
I had necrotizing fasciitis - the flesh-eating disease. For the next two months I suffered through painful wound cleaning, five more surgeries, debridement of dead skin and more. My stomach looked like a pizza. Just before my third surgery I was told my leg might need amputation. I had boils under my arms, and the skin all over my body was affected.
Q. I can't even imagine the horror of this experience, Alicia. This is now 2011 - almost five years later - where does the infection stand now? How is your health?