2018-04-11 / Front Page

Burke native fighting flesh eating disease


Above left, Chelsea Bonnell, at top, is pictured with her sister, Kellyn, left, and mother, Terry. At right, Chelsea and Kellyn recently enjoyed a “spa day” at the hospital. Above left, Chelsea Bonnell, at top, is pictured with her sister, Kellyn, left, and mother, Terry. At right, Chelsea and Kellyn recently enjoyed a “spa day” at the hospital. They never thought a spot on the back of her thigh could be deadly, but as Chelsea Bonnell heads into her 10th surgery today (Wednesday), her family is very much aware of a rare disease that's had their upbeat, spirited daughter fighting for her life.

Chelsea, 34, developed flu-like symptoms as the spot on her leg became red and swollen. Her parents, Danny and Terry, say that just over the course of a few days, she grew sicker and sicker. "It was a chore for her to stand or walk," Danny says. "She developed really bad stomach pains. Under the advisement of a family friend, we carried her to Doctors Hospital."

It was on that day, March 25, that the Bonnells learned Chelsea has necrotizing fasciitis, a rare flesh eating disease that attacks approximately 600-1,200 people each year.

Although rare, it is severe – carrying with it a 25-35 percent death rate as it kills off the body's soft tissue.

The staff at Doctors Hospital, which is known for its Burn/Wound Care Center, didn't waste any time as treatment began immediately.

"We were told it had spread from her thigh into her abdomen and that it was unclear if any organs had been compromised," Danny says, recalling their shock and fear. "The surgeon said he was taking her to emergency surgery for a life saving procedure. He said he would remove whatever necessary to save her life. Chelsea was extremely lucky that the bulk of the damage was above her peritoneum, away from her organs."

But that didn't mean she was out of harm's way. She had surgery the very next day, and the surgeries have continued every 48 hours since, considering that a delay in surgery can result in the disease spreading and is associated with an even higher risk of death.

The Bonnells explained that since Chelsea's surgeries are around the clock, all areas are left open to remove any necrotic tissue and to clean any toxin the bacteria has formed.

Thankfully, her parents say, the compromised areas were identified with the initial surgery and no new areas have developed due to treatment.

They have no clue when she'll come home.

"The surgeons tell us it is a day-to-day process, but they have no definitive time frame," Terry says, confirming that Chelsea is nowhere near the recovery period yet, so they are unsure of any other treatments or therapy that may follow once that point is reached.

For now, they are sticking to their routine, driving to the hospital's burn center every morning and visiting as much as possible until it's time to go home each evening.

Last week, Chelsea's sister, Kellyn, says she gave her parents a break from the hospital and surprised her big sister with a spa day, complete with a bath and a mini facial. She washed, brushed and braided her hair and painted her toenails a bright red as the duo sang along to beach music, cherishing every second in the four-hour visit.

"I want her back home so bad and healed fully," Kellyn says, clearly missing the companionship only a sister can give. "I hurt for her for what she is going through, but gosh she knows how to still make us laugh."

Her parents agree; even though medications and continuous surgeries mean she is often sedated, that's not stopped their football-loving daughter from cracking jokes and making the most of her ordeal. "That is the one thing that has not changed," Terry says. "She is actually keeping our spirits up."

Terry says the staff at the burn/wound center have made the stay easier to digest.

"The surgeons, nurses and other staff have been amazing and very knowledgeable about this condition," she adds. "While this is a rare disease U.S.-wide, it is not rare at Doctors Burn Unit. We have met people from out of state with family members that have the same condition."

While the journey remains a long, unknown one, the Bonnells say the prayers and support from the community, family and friends have been overwhelming. "So many people have reached out to us that we are left speechless with gratitude."

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