Alberta woman loses foot, toes, fingers after rare strep A infection

A woman in Red Deer, Alta., is sounding the alarm after she almost died from a rare strep A infection. She is sharing her story after hearing about an Ontario girl who lost an arm and a leg to group A streptococcus.

Colleen Watters first became sick last year, with what she was told was the flu

Colleen Watters says about a year ago she became sick with what doctors initially diagnosed as the flu. (Submitted by Colleen Watters)

A woman in Red Deer, Alta., is sounding the alarm after she says she almost died from a rare strep A infection. 

Last year, Colleen Watters became sick with something she was initially told was just the flu.

"I have never felt so sick before in my life," Watters told CBC News.

The next day she was taken to the hospital with head and stomach pain, but within an hour, she was in organ failure and ended up in a coma for nine days.

Doctors were forced to amputate her left foot, along with all the toes on her right foot and four fingers.

Colleen Watters was taken to hospital with flu-like symptoms but an hour later experienced organ failure, which resulted in a 9-day coma. (Submitted by Colleen Watters)

Watters said she wants to share her story after hearing about a girl in Mississauga, Ont., who lost an arm and a leg to group A streptococcus.

"If I would have just stayed home, I would have [gone into cardiopulmonary arrest] and I would have just died in my room downstairs," the 50-year-old said.

How does group A streptococcus affect the body?

5 years ago
Duration 1:08
Rare infection can lead to flesh-eating disease, toxic shock and even death

"When I came in, they said they've never seen somebody come in looking not bad, normal, and to get so sick so quick. My chances of survival were next to nothing, they gave me last rites and everything."

Watters said she's thankful she kept pushing after the flu diagnosis because she knew it was something more.

Most people naturally colonized

Glen Armstrong, a professor of microbiology at the University of Calgary, said the organisms that make up group A streptococcus are actually quite common and most of the time are harmless.

"There is a fairly large proportion of the population that are naturally colonized with these organisms," Armstrong said.

"Lots of people carry them naturally in their nasal passages, their upper respiratory tract, also on their skin."

Microbiologist Glen Armstrong says the organisms that make up group A streptococcus are common and most of the time harmless. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

But for people with compromised immune systems, the organisms could work their way from the blood stream into muscle tissue.

"Patients have to be hospitalized, they are put on high doses of antibiotics to try and kill the organisms but unfortunately, in necrotizing fasciitis, the blood flow to the area that becomes necrotic is severely impaired and so it's hard for the antibiotics to get to that site," Armstrong explained.

"If it goes on too long, one of the few intervention strategies that is left is to amputate the infected limb to prevent the infection from spreading further because if it does, there is a very high fatality rate in that as well."

Armstrong said it's important for everyone, including doctors, to be aware of stories like Watters' so strep A can be front of mind during testing.

Of the 288 group A strep cases in Alberta in 2015, 68 of them involved flesh-eating disease, toxic shock or death.

With files from Jennifer Lee