A cautionary tale (with advice for active gardeners)

A cautionary tale this weekend: last week my foot encountered a stick. The skin abrasion was so minor that I didn’t worry about it, though when it started to show signs of infection rather than recovery three days later, I reached for antiseptic salves and bandaids. Two days on from there, when my whole foot was swelling rapidly, I took advice and headed in for urgent after-hours care at the hospital. Yup, cellulitis – the bacterial infection was spreading rapidly into the surrounding soft tissue and skin.

I have been in this situation before, about 20 years ago. In that case, I knew I was in trouble within three hours of puncturing my foot and went for medical attention. Unfortunately, that escalated over the next week to the point where I became an emergency admission to hospital for surgery and then a four-night stay on intravenous antibiotics. In that case, the problem was that the bacteria, just a particular strain of E coli, was resistant to all but the remaining last-line-of-defence hospital-only antibiotics but it took a week of spiralling infection and ineffective antibiotics before that was ascertained. I was understandably nervous about this scenario repeating itself but fortunately, this time the bacteria responded to the more common antibiotics that are tried first. My foot is fine now but I still have another four days of antibiotics to take to finish the course.

Ringing at the back of my mind is my mother’s oft-repeated anecdote that the first autopsy my father ever carried out was on a man who died of a whitlow – a hang nail. That would have been before antibiotics were widely available because my father qualified in the later 1930s. I bet the victim developed cellulitis from that minor skin tear and it all spiralled out of control from there.

The left foot is just a little swollen today but I shall no longer garden in my jandals.

What is disturbing is that our future holds a return to this past if antibiotic resistance continues to grow. It is genuinely worrying. Without being too neurotic about it, the lesson we have learned is to keep a close eye on the minor injuries that we often sustain as part of our gardening activities. I have heard of major complications being caused originally by rose thorns. I am telling myself that I must garden in closed shoes, though that wouldn’t have helped me this time because I was just wandering out to pick up a couple of ripe rock melons to give away. I am not going to put on protective boots every time I go out the back door.

For overseas readers living in countries where medical attention is a personal cost, the total charge for my recent experience (hospital care at Accident and Emergency, a precautionary tetanus injection, antibiotics and after-care if required) was … $5. Yes, $5 for the dispensary charge on the extended course of antibiotics. I am feeling very kindly towards paying taxes this week.

9 thoughts on “A cautionary tale (with advice for active gardeners)

  1. Elaine Bolitho

    Thank you for sharing this Abby – I empathise with you, and it’s a good precautionary tale to share. Pity about not being able to wear jandals when you have such beautiful toes. I have never worn them as my feet are so ugly + having to wear orthotics to walk properly. I agree its a pain having to swap one pair of the supportive New Balance shoes for an older pair, but they do provide foot protection. Not so for the ankles. Beastly little critters that don’t like me disturbing their habitat bite me through two layers of socks sprayed with insect repellent! But that’s another story and I won’t bore you with it!

  2. Marion

    So glad you are healing. I have had cellulitis twice, also about 20 years apart. Both responded to antibiotics but it was scary. I have definitely given up barefoot gardening. It’s so easy to contract, people don’t realise.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I felt so silly in at A&E with such a pathetic little originating skin abrasion spiralling rapidly in cellulitis but, yes, that is not something to be ignored or taken lightly. It does not just *get better* of its own accord as you and I both know.

    2. Lesley Strickett

      I had cellulitis fell, through a window while painting ended up in hospital overnight 5 different medications a few days off work .Had it again from a rose prickle off Maggie Barry so it went .

  3. Tim Dutton

    Very glad you are on the mend Abbie. We are seem to get cuts, abrasions and thorn pricks on a daily basis working in the garden, but yours is not the first tale I have heard of a trivial garden injury turning into a major health scare due to bacterial infection, so we are always on the lookout for any sign of an infection starting up. Touch wood, so far nothing ever has.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Yes, I think it pays to be aware of what can go wrong. We are of course working in an environment filled with fungi and bacteria – some benign, some beneficial and some not.

  4. Kerry Hand

    Local woman died of a rose prickle some years back. Yes, it is a concern, we don’t want to go back to the bad old days where folk just up and died from nothing major.

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