The thick ribbons of scar tissue that run down Chelsea Wooldridge’s arm from her armpit to her fingers are a daily reminder of a battle she fought so bravely.
The 29-year-old’s withered right arm has been left with little feeling and she can scarcely bend it at the elbow. Her fourth and fifth fingers don’t work, lying idle at incongruous angles. But for Chelsea, it’s a small price to pay for her life.
“I can still hug my kids and I’m still here,” she says, pulling Mikaylah, 10, Kayne, nine, and Leah, six, closer. Two years ago, Chelsea was struck down by the rare infection necrotising fasciitis, commonly known as flesh-eating disease.
Chelsea fought hard and won but has spent every day since trying to claw her life back with the support of her family, friends and her partner Tegan Kerr-Bell, 28.
“I’m still battling,” admits Chelsea, who lives near Whangarei with her three adorable children.
Left so weakened by the infection, Chelsea had to learn how to walk again. She continues to have skin grafts and is still campaigning ACC to recognise her near-death experience as an accident.
Chelsea believes her infection began with a white-tailed spider bite. The bacterium that causes necrotising fasciitis usually enters the body after surgery, an insect bite, a cut or an abrasion. The fatality rate if left untreated is an alarming 70%.
The young mum wants to share her harrowing story to spread awareness of how quickly an infection can knock someone young and healthy. Within 48 hours of waking up to find her elbow swollen, Chelsea was battling for life in Whangarei Hospital.
Over a 10-day period, she had 27 operations to cut infected tissue from her arm in a desperate bid to stop the infection reaching her vital organs. “I woke up in hospital, a shadow of who I once was,” recalls Chelsea.
In 2015, she was a fit and active single mum working on a dairy farm at Titoki in Northland’s Mangakahia Valley. “It was hard, physical work – I was throwing hay bales off the back of a trailer by hand,” she tells.
A few days before she got sick, Chelsea disturbed a nest of white-tailed spiders. “I picked up a shirt and about 15 dropped out, like something out of a horror movie.”
Around the same time, she got two spider bites – on her hip and finger – that needed medical attention. Then, on March 15, 2015, Chelsea woke with a red, hot and swollen elbow. “Oh, I’ll be right,” I thought.
By the next day, however, the swelling had progressed so much that Chelsea’s twin sister Jaleesa insisted on taking her to hospital. The twins and their other siblings, Amber, 33, and Ethan, 25, are close because their mum Sue Jordan died 14 years ago and they’ve grown up looking out for each other.
“Chelsea looked terrible,” tells Jaleesa. “She was drowsy, in pain and emotional. I knew something wasn’t right.”
Chelsea received antibiotics and was sent home, but by the next day, she was struggling for breath and had flu-like symptoms, plus an itchy rash had begun to spread across her body. The swelling was moving almost visibly down her arm towards her hand.
Doctors admitted Chelsea and began a battery of tests. Later that day, Jaleesa left Chelsea with their sister Amber and ducked away for a few hours to look after her own four children.
No sooner had she left the hospital than she got a call to come back. The woman on the phone asked, “Are you next of kin? You need to come back – Chelsea has gone downhill.”
For 10 days, Chelsea’s life hung in the balance. Her siblings dropped everything to be by her side in intensive care and support her three bewildered children.
“Only Mikaylah was really old enough to understand,” tells Jaleesa. “She was terrified for her mum, and scared to see her in ICU with all the machines and tubes keeping her alive.”
A treasured keepsake today of Chelsea’s battle is the diary of heartfelt messages people wrote at her bedside.
At one stage, doctors told the siblings that Chelsea would lose one arm, possibly two. “The fear was that the infection would keep travelling up to her chest wall,” explains Jaleesa.
For nearly two weeks, it was touch and go, but the turning point came when doctors tried immunoglobulin therapy, a donor plasma containing antibodies.
“I remember waking up 10 days later in ICU and I was like, ‘What just happened?’ I was covered in bandages, wired up to machines and so weak, I couldn’t stand,” says Chelsea.
It has been a tough couple of years for Chelsea. After a long recovery and rehabilitation in Auckland’s Middlemore Hospital, she’s still getting physically stronger and has only recently returned to casual farm work. The resilient mum knows she has a long road ahead, but she’s thankful to just be alive.
Chelsea says, “My focus now is regaining my strength and spending time with the people who stood by me when I nearly lost my battle for life.”