When Joanna Cartwright awoke after eight days in an induced coma, she was surrounded by photos of her daughters Lacey, Nicole and Scarlett-Rose. Although the girls’ faces looked familiar, the then 24-year-old says she “couldn’t place them” in her memory.
“It’s very strange to wake up and not know who you are or where you are … I tried to speak but by the time I’d got to the end of a sentence I couldn’t remember why I’d started it,” the English mother told The Daily Mail.
The illness that caused Ms Cartwright to be put in the coma is one every woman is familiar with: Toxic Shock Syndrome. TSS is a rare, serious infection caused by the overgrowth of certain bacteria – in most cases, Staphylococcus aureus (staph), or group A streptococcus (strep). When this occurs, a toxin is released by the bacteria that can affect numerous regions of the body.
While anyone can develop TSS, and it can result from any situation where a bacterial infection is present (eg. surgery, or cuts and burns to the skin) it most commonly occurs in women during menstruation, and is thought to be linked to tampon use.
This is why tampon packages usually contain warnings about the risk of TSS.
In Ms Cartwright’s case, the infection did come from a tampon. When she initially fell ill, she thought he had the flu – but three days later she was having difficulty breathing and was sliding in and out of consciousness. When her mother and partner Stephen rushed her to the hospital, they were informed she had just hours to live.
“My internal organs were shutting down so I was put on life support, and put into a medically induced coma … My hands had swollen, about eight layers of skin peeled off, I lost about 50 per cent of my hair, and all my nails fell off – I must have looked horrendous,” Ms Cartwright tells the Daily Mail.
According to Brisbane-based obstetrician Dr Gino Pecoraro, it’s not unusual for TSS to present in such dramatic ways.
“The classic presentation is that [the patient] looks bright red – they think they look sunburnt, but their blood vessels open up and the skin starts to peel off,” he explains.
Depending on where the infection goes in the body, high temperatures, muscular pain, light-headedness and headaches are also common side-effects. TSS can also infect the kidneys and cardiovascular system, causing symptoms like a drop in blood pressure.
For Joanna Cartwright, toxic shock syndrome almost claimed her life. She was put into a coma on her 25th birthday, and woke up eight days later confused and disorientated, unsure of where she was and who was around her – even confusing her brother for her boyfriend. “All I really knew was that I was very poorly, and I thought I was going to die,” she recalls.