How a blackberry scratch almost cost a woman her hand

When her finger started throbbing after hooking it to a blackberry bush, Jackie Jackson pulled it off.

When her finger started throbbing after hooking it to a blackberry bush, Jackie Jackson pulled it off.

When her finger started throbbing after hooking it to a blackberry bush, Jackie Jackson pulled it off.

Blackberry picking was one of her late summer pursuits, so the 60-year-old swim instructor was used to picking up the odd cut.

But this time it was different. Although Jackie couldn’t see any sign of a thorn in her right index finger, four days later it started to swell and really hurt.

Jackie managed with a single painkiller, but within three weeks the finger was twice the size of normal and was throbbing so bad it kept her awake at night. The next finger also started to hurt.

She went to her GP three times over the next three weeks, but each time he told her to keep taking painkillers because he couldn’t see anything physically on her finger.

A month after the injury, the pain was so severe that Jackie was in tears. In desperation, she went to the emergency room – a move that most likely saved her hand.

Because there, Jackie was told that a blackthorn had caused a fungal infection in her hand that, if left untreated, could have been devastating.

“I thought they would send me home or say I was crazy,” says Jackie, who lives near Marchwood in Hampshire with her husband.

“But they took one look at my two bulging fingers and dragged me right through them. Before I knew it I was on an IV and was admitted. I was shocked. I only came by after work. I had no bag, no overnight gear. I didn’t even tell my husband I was going.’

After blood work and an X-ray of her hand, the doctors told Jackie the next day that she needed emergency surgery to save her. [her] finger, rinse it out and prevent the spread of infection’.

In fact, the fungal infection had spread into her bloodstream and to other fingers and her hand. Doctors told her that part of her index finger, including the nail, had to be removed so the area could be cleaned to prevent deadly sepsis.

“I was shocked,” Jackie says. “I had no idea that something as innocuous as a thorn could lead to me being hospitalized, operated on and told I could lose my hand.”

Sepsis or blood poisoning is a potentially life-threatening condition that can lead to organ failure and death, affecting 245,000 people a year in the UK.

Jackie was told a blackthorn had caused a fungal infection in her hand that could have been devastating if left untreated

Jackie was told a blackthorn had caused a fungal infection in her hand that could have been devastating if left untreated

Jackie was told a blackthorn had caused a fungal infection in her hand that could have been devastating if left untreated

While it is often accompanied by serious infections such as pneumonia, it can develop from any kind of bacterial, viral, or fungal infection, including those caused by thorn injuries.

‘The risk of infection depends on the number of lingering cuts, the depth of the punctures, the type of fungus present on the thorn, and whether there is an underlying problem with the individual’s immune system [for example, if they are on immunosuppressants which reduce their immune system activity]’, says Dr Zainab Laftah, dermatologist and spokesperson for the British Skin Foundation.

“Untreated infections can spread locally, to the deeper layers of the surrounding skin or into the bloodstream, leading to sepsis, a life-threatening medical emergency.”

She notes that the fungus Sporothrix schenckii, which mainly occurs in soil and on rose bushes, twigs and decaying vegetation, is a problem.

It can get into the blood through a small scratch and cause sporotrichosis – also known as rose gardener’s disease. ‘This usually presents as small, painless red bumps on the skin that slowly enlarge and can form open sores. It can lead to sepsis in rare cases,” says Dr Laftah.

Jackie’s was a textbook example – the sporotrichosis led to pain, warmth, redness and swelling that got worse over time – but neither she nor her GP saw the signs.

The case of Jackie shows how subtle the infection can start. One September day, when she bit her finger on a thorn while picking blackberries with her English Springer Spaniel Ossie, there wasn’t even any blood.

But within days, the finger began to increase in size and the pain worsened. It was three weeks before she finally went to her GP, who said it was probably a minor infection that would go away on its own.

He recommended over-the-counter pain medication and prescribed anti-inflammatories to reduce the swelling — neither had any effect.

“A few days later, a red line appeared and squirmed in my hand,” Jackie says. “It scared me because I knew it meant it was infected.

The pain was so bad that I couldn’t sleep. It was also constantly hot, red and pulsating. I had to sleep downstairs away from my husband with my finger dipped in a bowl of cold water all night. It was a torment.’

During a third visit to her GP, Jackie was prescribed stronger painkillers and antibiotics for the infection.

“I wish I had gone to the hospital sooner,” she says. “I had no idea it was this bad.”

During the subsequent surgery under general anaesthetic, the surgeon cut 2 cm of tissue from the inside of her finger, removed the nail, and then rinsed the area with saline to clean it before stitching it back up.

“When I came to, my whole hand was bandaged and in pain,” Jackie says.

“Laboratory tests showed it was a fungal infection caused by blackberry picking and it was so bad and spreading so far – by then it had spread to the bone in my fingers – that it could have led to sepsis if it was not treated.

“I asked the surgeon if I could have lost my finger or my hand and he nodded and said it was possible. I was amazed.’ Sepsis occurs when the body’s immune system overreacts to an infection. Signs include slurred speech or confusion, extreme pain in muscles or joints, not urinating in a day, mottled, very pale or discolored skin, severe shortness of breath and even a feeling of death. Symptoms often develop quickly.

‘Sepsis is usually caused by bacterial infections,’ explains Dr Ron Daniels, an intensive care physician and director of the UK Sepsis Trust. ‘But in some cases it can be caused by viruses, including SARS-CoV-2 [the virus that causes Covid-19 infection] and by fungal infections.’

An estimated five per cent of sepsis cases are caused by fungal infections, which ‘equates to about 12,000 cases a year in the UK’, says Dr Daniels.

Anyone with an infection with worsening symptoms should call 111 and ask, ‘Could it be sepsis?’

Sepsis can occur very quickly, causing an otherwise healthy person to become seriously ill within hours.

“However, it normally develops over 48 to 72 hours with progressive deterioration.”

Anyone with cuts that appear to be getting worse — for example, if they begin to throb or a red line appears, both of which are signs of infection — should “seek medical advice from a pharmacist, primary care physician or dermatologist,” adds Dr. Laftah. Washing the area is also recommended, she says.

Fortunately, the surgery meant Jackie avoided sepsis. She was kept in the hospital for four days after surgery to check for signs of ongoing infection.

Unfortunately, a few weeks after discharge, she had to be readmitted for another surgery to clean the wound again, as she had a recurring infection.

She was then given antibiotics for weeks and two years back and forth to consultants, but luckily was able to return to work.

Now, six years after the initial problem, her finger is still numb.

“The nail grew back, but I’ll never have the same feeling in my finger again because the infection and surgery damaged the nerves,” says Jackie.

‘I had no idea that something as beautiful as picking blackberries could lead to such an injury. Now if I ever prune a blackberry, my husband will have me wear thick, sturdy gardening gloves.’

The simple life

Small changes in your daily routine can boost your health. This week: Smile more

Laughter may cure some of the symptoms of stress that can affect our sleep and cause blood pressure to rise, suggests research from the University of Basel in Switzerland.

Students recorded the frequency of their laughter and stressful experiences every half hour between 8 a.m. and 9:30 p.m. for two weeks. The researchers found that the more often the students laughed, the less stressed they felt.

Because the study was based on the participants’ own reporting, the researchers were unable to track medical responses. However, laughter or “positive affect” may reduce the negative health effects of stress by lowering an increased heart rate or providing a coping mechanism for pain, they wrote in the journal PLoS One last year.

And even if you don’t find something funny yourself, hearing someone else laugh can have the same effect on stress.

In a 2018 study, researchers at the University of Hiroshima in Japan exposed 90 students to stressful conditions and then made them laugh for five minutes. They found that laughing lowered their heart rate, which produced a relaxing effect by activating the parasympathetic nervous system (which activates the body’s resting response).