At 11 years old, Jillena DeCarteret was a gymnast who was just as comfortable tumbling on the mat as she was walking down the street. So when she awoke one morning with a mystery pain attacking her shoulder, she was understandably frightened that her budding gymnastics career might be in jeopardy.
Her parents rushed her to a local hospital, where a MRI scan revealed that Jillena had acquired a particularly bad joint infection in her shoulder known as septic arthritis. Because of the infection’s severity, she was taken to Children’s Hospital Boston where further testing showed Jillena also was also suffering from Necrotizing fasciitis (NF), a flesh-eating disease. Soon after, a bright red rash broke out from her shoulder to wrist and began spreading to her chest. She was prepped for surgery, where a team led by Mininder Kocher, MD, MPH, associate director of Children’s Division of Sports Medicine, was waiting.
Over the next week Jillena underwent multiple debridements (surgical removal of infected tissue) all the way from her waist to her shoulder. The procedures were very touch and go at first, which was difficult for both Jillena and her med team.
“At first I was very worried she may die, then, when she was stable, I was scared she was going to lose her arm,” remembers Kocher. “Once we realized she’d keep the arm I was afraid that she would only have minimal function with it. But in the end it all went extremely well. I don’t think I slept a wink that week, but it was all worth it.”
In a month’s time Jillena had made a full recovery and was ready to be discharged; no small feat considering the severity of her condition when she first arrived. “A lot of these cases end in amputation or even death,” Jillena says. “I feel very lucky just to be alive and still have use of both my arms,” she says.
Jillena may have been out of immediate danger, but her treatment was far from over. She spent the next several months in physical therapy, regaining the strength and flexibility that used to come so naturally to her.
“Physical therapy was painful and involved a lot of hard work to regain full mobility of my arm, which was frustrating because all of the sudden I had to relearn how to do things I never had problem doing before,” she says. “But my doctors were great and the progress I made was steady, so I felt like I was accomplishing something. That made the process easier to deal with.”
With time Jillena got stronger and stronger, and soon returned to gymnastics, where she eventually achieved the rank of level 9 gymnast. After a few years, she focused her attention on track and field where she succeed far beyond her expectations; she currently co-holds a Northeaster University record for pole vaulting, where she attends school on a track scholarship. Dr. Kocher is a team physician for Northeastern’s athletics department, so he and Jillena still talk often. But fortunately for her, their interactions are social, not professional.
“I still see Dr. Kocher at school every now and again and we talk via email, but so far I’m glad to say that I haven’t had to to see him for an injury,” she says. “Bumping into him now reminds me of how lucky I was to have had such a great team of doctors and nurses at Children’s and that I can’t take anything in life for granted.”
Jillena’s treatment not only paved the way to a successful athletic career, but also inspired her professionally. From the moment she left Children’s Jillena says she knew she wanted to be a nurse, and aspires to one day provide the same level of care she received. Now a third year nursing student, Jillena will soon get the opportunity to learn from Children’s staff first hand as an intern at the hospital.
“After I was discharged, I had a healthier body and new idea of what I wanted to do when I grew up,” she says. “I hope that some day I will be able to make as positive an impact on someone’s life as Dr. Kocher and my other doctors and nurses had on me.”
Jillena will begin helping patients this September. In the mean time she’s hopeful her story and encouraging words can offer support to kids facing medical problems of their own.
“If I could talk to kids being admitted to Children’s I’d tell them to never give up hope, and always work hard,” she says. “If you’ve got the right attitude, you can overcome almost anything.”
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