Hello, my name is Caitlin Cooper. I am a 17 year old girl from the Northern Suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, and I am one of the youngest survivors of a rare flesh-eating disease called Necrotising Fasciitis. And this is my story.
I started dancing when I was 3 years old. During my childhood I trained and competed in Victoria. My dream was always to dance professionally on cruise ships traveling around the world. In early 2023, I was awarded a half scholarship to Jason Coleman Ministry of Dance, the Performing Arts College. I trained full time every day to become the professional dancer I had always dreamed of.
However, it was just 3 days after my 17th birthday and just another normal day of dancing, on Friday 05/05/2023 when my life took an unexpected horrific turn.
I was dancing in a studio and working on a solo that I had choreographed myself. I had done a backward roll and hit the top of my foot very hard on the floor. I kept dancing through the pain and went on with my day.
But that night I lay awake all night with a fever. I was hot and cold every hour.
That morning I was throwing up in the bathroom and I called my mom to come and help me. My mom even did a covid test on me!
My foot was in excruciating pain and it was so swollen I remember not being able to put any pressure on it and walking/limping on my heel. I didn’t have time to go to the doctor or had an injury because 2 weeks later I was training to perform in Malaysia. But I knew something was wrong. I thought for sure it must be broken or broken and begged my mom to take me to the doctor. We got an x-ray and waited all day for results, as the day got longer and longer my foot started to swell more like a balloon. The X-rays showed there could be a slight undisplaced fracture, but I had to get a CT scan to confirm it. We were waiting for the results and the doctor had told us there was no fracture and it was just soft tissue. He had said it would swell more before it goes down and told me to stay away from it.
That night I slept peacefully all night, but the next morning, Sunday 07/05/2023, was the day when no one knew I was only hours away from death. I woke up in excruciating pain and my foot now swelled up to my ankle and developed dark bruises. I remember going to the footy with my family that afternoon but there would be too many people and we didn’t want to risk it. I spent the day at my grandparents’ house while my mother went to the footy with my uncles. As far as I remember, my grandparents and myself were sitting on the couch watching a movie, I fell asleep for almost 2 hours, but I woke up in so much pain that my grandmother told me to distract myself or put my foot in the cold tub of water, but any ice or cold water would make the pain worse, so we tried lukewarm water, but that was no good either. I had my foot on a cushion, although I remember having to keep my foot inward (sickle) because I felt like my bone was going to pop out.
I moved from the front living room to another room on crutches to try to get some more sleep. I had no appetite and I wasn’t eating. I then started to get a fever and I actually threw up my guts. I don’t remember anything else about that night, but my grandma told me I was screaming in pain, my ears were ringing and my eyesight was losing. My grandmother tried to check my blood pressure, but the blood pressure monitor was not getting a reading. I tried on my grandfather’s watch and my heart rate was 155 beats per minute. Once I started to pass out/pass out, they knew we had to call an ambulance. My mother and family also came straight from footy at that time.
I don’t remember anything the paramedics did when they arrived, but I do know they had to call a Mica, that was the intensive care paramedics. I used fentanyl, which is 50-100 times more potent than morphine. Its primary clinical utility is for pain management.
Once I got to the emergency room at Northern Hospital, the lights were bright as day, it was loud and there were so many people. My mom tried to keep me awake because my blood pressure was 58/47 and my heart rate was 155 beats per minute.
I only remember the nurse calling for a plastic surgeon to come in and look at me.
The plastic surgeon had said, “If this is what I think it is, we should take her to surgery.” They had to put in a catheter, but I refused, which was not good for the time. My mom told me he was counting down from 20 for the nurse to put the catheter in, but when he got to 10 he said, “Is it here yet?” and she said “Don’t do it yet”. He said “it’s too late Abort Abort we’ll put it in when she’s asleep” and took me straight to surgery.
Looking back, I was sure I was going to have surgery when I sent my best friend a voice message telling her I love her and I’ll talk to her when I’m awake.
We were told it would either be my life or my leg. About 5 days later I found out that I had to sign the agreement form to amputate my leg if it came to my leg or my life.
I had a rare infection called necrotizing fasciitis, also known as a flesh-eating infection that is caused by a bacteria in a wound or blunt trauma, which in my case was when I banged my foot. Necrotizing fasciitis is so rare I’m 1 in a million and this infection kills 1/5 people who contract it.
I woke up 24 hours later in ICU after being in an induced coma. During the artificial coma, they had a second operation to get rid of all infections. I spent 2 nights in ICU on a breathing tube and on multiple IV meds as the nurses tried to save my life due to my kidneys starting to fail and needing blood pressure meds. Once my stats were stable, I moved to the plastics department.
The first night on the ward I had to get 2 blood transfusions and an oxygen tube through my nose. During my stay in the hospital I had 6 surgeries. The first 2 were an emergency to cut open the foot and leg from below my toes to mid shin and do deprivation surgery to remove all dead tissue and get rid of the infection.
The next 2 were cleaning it and making sure the infection was completely gone. The doctors told us I needed a skin graft and told us to choose from 3 plans:
First, a normal skin graft from my thigh, but my foot would never have movement or flexibility again, meaning I wouldn’t be able to run, jump, or dance.
The second option was a skin graft FLAP, which is similar to a graft, and that tissue is transplanted. The essential difference is that a flap has its own blood supply. A flap removes larger amounts of skin and tissue.
Or the third option that everyone thought would be the best option for my outcome was to do a BTM, which is a biodegradable temporizing matrix, a synthetic temporizing matrix that has shown positive results that regenerates tissues.
They put this BTM in my foot and leg during the 5th operation. However, I still have to get a skin graft over the BTM once it has healed.
My 6th surgery was to make sure the BTM was working and the surgeons decided to take out the VAC DRESSING because it was healing so well.
I had to learn everything all over again, getting from the bed to a chair, learning to walk with a walker, showering and going to the toilet and then walking with crutches. I had to learn that this was my new normal. I went out in a wheelchair for the first time on 20/05/2023 after 2 weeks in hospital.
There are good days and bad, but what got me through each day in the hospital was the support I received from friends, family, and the entire dance community.
I was discharged from the hospital after 29 days! On 02/06/2023.
I now go back once a week for a dressing change and physio. I continue to use my wheelchair at home and am gaining confidence walking with a moonboot and my crutches.
Once the BTM heals enough and the new tissues grow over the tendons, they can proceed with the 7th surgery, for my skin graft. This should happen in the next week or 2.
My dance school Lauren Wall School Of Dance in Epping has generously organized a GO FUND ME to help fund the costs associated with my rehabilitation and recovery.
I am a dancer and I will always be a dancer. My motivation and determination to dance again gives me so much strength.
With lots of rehab and post-surgery physio, I will get stronger and show the world how far I’ve come. One day I hope to help other injured dancers and guide and inspire dancers who are struggling.
My name is Caitlin Cooper,
This is not the end of my story, it’s just the beginning.