Shelby Elliott was the picture of health — a competitive soccer player, horseback rider and instructor who worked three jobs before wrapping up her final year of high school.
At 17, the southwestern Ontario woman was shocked to learn she was diagnosed with a fatal flesh-eating disease — facing a possible full-leg amputation, permanent disability, or worse.
"I didn't really have any other choice. I was in pain and this is what [doctors] said I needed to do," said Elliott, now 25 and a survivor of necrotizing fasciitis.
"I would rather live without a leg than not live at all."
Elliot was quarantined about eight years ago at the London, Ont., Children's Hospital — where she underwent five surgeries to combat an invasive group A streptococcus — which has now resurfaced in the city, prompting an outbreak warning.
Last week, Middlesex-London Health Unit officials issued an alert that said nine people have died of the recent outbreak that was declared more than 18 months ago. More than 132 cases of infection have been reported since April 1, 2016.
After 10 days in an induced coma, one month in hospital, six months living with mobile assistance, and an unquantifiable amount of resilience — Elliott was back at the stable and on the playing field.
"I'm one of the lucky ones that actually made it through," said Elliott, who left the hospital 35 pounds lighter.
"I was only 17 years old I [couldn't] be this thing limping around and an invalid my entire life."
One of the lucky ones
The Shakespeare native is proud of her wiggly battle scar, stretching about 35 inches from her ankle, up to the top of her hip bone.
She said doctors had to scrape out the bacteria, which damages tissues under the skin, and causes the skin to die. It is often spread by direct contact with nose and throat secretions from an infected person, or in contact with infected wounds or cuts on the skin.
"The doctors had no idea back then. They have no idea to this day how I could've gotten it," she said.
Experts said necrotizing fasciitis "can be tricky to recognize" but is treatable if detected early.
Dr. Michael Silverman, an infectious disease specialist at the London Health Science Centre said there are several possible flesh-eating diseases that could circulate.
"We always have seen some. It's more common in the winter when there's more crowds together there's more transmission. Even when there is no outbreak, there will still be occasional and sporadic cases where someone will get necrotizing fasciitis," he said.
Although married, with two young girls, Elliott — who also works as a painter — still has fears of illnesses any time someone in her family gets any of the symptoms of the invasive group A streptococcus bacteria.
Symptoms vary, from fever, chills, sore throat and dizziness to severe pain, redness or swelling around a wound or injured area.
"If you're feeling off and you're having symptoms of things you've never had before. You need to make sure you get looked at. If you get a cut, you got to clean it," she said.
And although Elliott is back on her golden Quarter horse, she can't help but always double check her symptoms.
"It seems like it's only this, but what if it's so much more."