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.
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.