Lomita man ‘happy to be alive’ after surviving deadly infection

By Melissa Evans Staff Writer
Posted: 09/07/2010 07:15:47 PM PDT
Tom Dukes nearly died last winter after contracting an E. Coli infection in which he endured two surgeries and spent months in the hospital. He has since become the face of the widespread and growing problem of “superbugs”. (Scott Varley / Staff Photographer)
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The symptoms were at first familiar: Extreme pain in the side and back, abdominal cramps and overall body aches. Tom Dukes, 52, had sweated out the symptoms of his diverticulitis before, and thought he could make it a few days through the weekend before seeing his doctor for a simple antibiotic that Monday.
“I didn’t realize that in a few hours I’d be laying on a hospital bed saying goodbye to my family and friends,” the longtime Lomita resident said. “It was all pretty scary.”
Dukes did, in fact, have another bout of diverticulitis, an inflammation of the digestive track that this time had perforated his colon. He would need surgery.
What he didn’t know at the time was that a form of antibiotic-resistant E. coli had caused the inflammation, which ruptured his colon and was now spewing throughout his body.
After two surgeries, nearly a monthlong hospital stay, six weeks of antibiotics and five months on disability, Dukes is one of the few who have lived through such an ordeal to tell about it.
And tell about it he has. The plastics salesman has become a poster boy of sorts for the dangerous spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as “superbugs.”
Dukes was featured in a New York Times Op-Ed piece in March, spoke to a congressional panel this summer and will be featured in a Katie Couric documentary on CBS this fall looking at the spread of these bugs.
“Whatever I can do, I’m happy to do it,” said
Dukes, who returned to work a few months ago. “I’m happy to be alive.”
The national attention was spurred by a coincidental friendship with Dr. Brad Spellberg, a South Bay researcher, infectious disease physician and author who has been outspoken about the need to develop new drugs. The two had met 10 years ago at the gym.
When Spellberg noticed his friend had been gone for a while, he asked around – and soon discovered Dukes had a bacteria that, historically, was only acquired
Tom Dukes nearly died last winter after contracting an E. Coli infection in which he endured two surgeries and spent months in the hospital. Family photos fill Duke’s Lomita home. (Scott Varley / Staff Photographer)
in hospital settings.
“We are starting to see this escape into the community with increasing frequency,” said Spellberg, a researcher at Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute near Torrance. “This bacteria was resistant to everything oral. There was nothing he could take orally that would have cured him.”
Through trial and error, doctors found an antibiotic that would work, but it had to be injected intravenously directly into Dukes’ heart.
“Before, you would prescribe a catch-all antibiotic and it would work,” Spellberg said. “Today, the standard treatments don’t work anymore. We don’t have enough drugs.”
The Infectious Diseases Society of America, a trade group representing thousands of doctors and
Tom Dukes, who grew up in Michigan, proudly flies his University of Michigan flag at his Lomita home. (Scott Varley / Staff Photographer)
nurses, including Spellberg, had been looking for cases of antibiotic resistance that weren’t caused by the widely publicized MRSA bug, a form of staph infection that kills about 18,000 people a year.
The MRSA bug gained notoriety in 2007 when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report detailing what most scientists already knew – the bug was not prevalent just in hospital settings, but in the community as well, affecting otherwise young, healthy people.
The IDSA invited Duke to write his story, which was published on its website. From there, he was contacted by Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist who penned the Op-Ed piece looking at the problem of superbugs and the connection to antibiotics used in the agricultural business.
Dukes said he was then contacted by “The Dr. Oz Show,” a syndicated medical advice television series, but couldn’t make the appearance due to the close proximity to his second surgery.
A few months later he was invited to speak to a congressional panel to tell his story. Spellberg also spoke, urging lawmakers to create more incentives for drug companies to get new antibiotics into the development phase. In the current economic climate, these drugs are not money-makers, he said.
“We’re running out of drugs,” he said, “and companies aren’t producing these drugs fast enough.”
In all, Dukes had about 8 inches of his colon removed, and had to wear a colostomy bag for several months. He lost 20 pounds during the ordeal.
In March, doctors had to operate a second time to reattach his organs.
As far as the recent publicity, Dukes said it was unexpected, but has given his near-death experience a measure of meaning.
“I always thought my purpose in life was raising my daughter and being a father,” he said. “I guess part of it now is to share this experience if it can help somebody.”
melissa.evans@dailybreeze.com

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