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Shernaz Mejos is alive. Given the medical horror show the 49-year-old Rohnert Park mother of two has endured, she’s thankful foremost simply to still be here.

Mejos is grateful as well to know she’ll soon be able to walk again, though she knows her gait will be jarred by the heavy, specialized shoe she’ll wear on what amputation surgery left of her right foot.

She lost also the greater portions of the fingers on her left hand. She has found, though, that with keyboarding and some other tasks, her intact right hand compensates pretty well.

“I try to have a positive attitude,” said Mejos, who’s gentle-natured but resolute and has returned half-time to her job as a loan underwriter with Community First Credit Union. She reflects that she was “a regular gal going about my business” until she became suddenly and horribly ill in early December from a rare case of necrotizing fasciitis.

Potentially fatal, it’s commonly called flesh-eating bacteria. An infection occurs when common bacteria enter the skin through even a tiny cut, insect bite or other opening and begin to produce a toxin that destroys soft tissue. The horrendously painful damage spreads quickly until and unless it is stopped with antibiotics and surgery.

Mejos has no idea how a variant of the bacteria that causes strep throat entered her right side. She was helping out backstage at a Dec. 3 ballet performance that included her younger daughter, Natasha, who’s now 9, when she began to feel sick.

“It was like you were getting the flu or something,” Mejos said. She went after the performance to an urgent-care clinic, where she was told, “You have some kind of infection” and was prescribed antibiotics.

Mejos had intended to attend the following day’s dance perfomance, but that Sunday morning she was much sicker. She told Natasha she was sorry but she needed to just rest.

Mejos’ husband, Frank, and Natasha came home to find her semi-conscious on the couch. Her lips were blue.

An ambulance rushed her to Petaluma Valley Hospital. She was taken into surgery after doctors discovered there was dead tissue just under the skin of her right side, and the damage was spreading downward.

Mejos recalls little from that stage of her crisis but she knows what the doctors did. “They were literally scraping out the dead tissue,” she said.

She was also administered powerful antibiotics. The drugs can’t penetrate fully into damaged tissue, so surgeries are required to cut away dead tissue and get ahead of the advancing infection.

Mejos was so terribly ill that her blood pressure was dropping, forcing the administering of drugs to constrict her blood vessels. That limited the flow of blood to her fingers and toes, putting her at risk of losing them.

After one night at Petaluma Valley Hospital, doctors had Mejos transferred to California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco and to the care of plastic surgeon Edward Miranda, whose specialties include treatment of necrotizing fasciitis.

“He is a genius, I would say,” Mejos said.

Speaking about her case with her permission, Miranda said the doctors in Petaluma stabilized Mejos and saved her life. Still, she was desperately ill when she arrived in San Francisco.

Tissue continued to be eaten away on her side, and reduced blood flow caused her fingers and toes to turn black. “We thought at one point she was going to lose both feet,” Miranda said.

He performed a series of surgeries to combat the advance of the infection in Mejos’ side. Though the damage to her extremities was not as severe as initially feared, she did lose to amputation the portion of her right foot just up from her toes, and the fingers of her left hand, below the knuckles.

Miranda said Mejos came through the potentially fatal ordeal as well as she did because of the initial care she received at Petaluma Valley Hospital and because she was healthy at the time of the infection — and “she has incredible strength of spirit.”

Why did the streptococcus bacteria that penetrated her skin force her into a fight for her life? Miranda said the short answer is, “We’re not sure.”

The surgeon said such an infection is most likely to occur to someone who is already chronically ill or whose immune system, which fights off potentially harmful bacteria, is for some reason suppressed. In such instances, it is understandable why a bacterial infection at a small cut or other wound would take hold in the tissue and become virulent.

But Mejos appears to have been a picture of health prior to the infection.

“That’s what’s so scary about this,” Miranda said. He said an attack by flesh-eating bacteria is extremely rare and people with weakened immune systems are most vulnerable to it — “but it can happen to anyone.”

Miranda said that for Mejos to be infected was similar to her standing in just the location during just the meteorological conditions necessary for her to be struck by lightning.

It was a case, he said, of her being “the wrong person, at the wrong time, with the wrong bacteria.”

Typically, a common bacteria or combination of bacteria find their way into a small cut or puncture or other wound and are dispatched by the person’s immune system.

But if the conditions are just so, Miranda said, the same infection occurs “and you become catastrophically sick. Within hours, maybe a day, without advanced medical care you’re dead.”

The doctor stresses that such cases are blessedly rare and that the necrotizing fasciitis infection, when it does occur, is not passed from one person to another. He recommends that no one lose sleep over the prospect of contracting the infection, and that everyone consult their doctor should a small cut or wound seem not to be healing normally.

Shernaz Mejos accepts that her problem started with some sort of break in the skin on her right side, but she said she was never aware of such a cut or sore. It’s probably a blessing that she has little recollection of all she suffered in December.

“I didn’t realize what happened until the first of January,” she said. “It was quite a shock.”

Mejos came home from the hospital, without much of her right foot and the fingers of her left hand, on Feb. 24. The saga has greatly impacted not only her life but those of her husband and her daughters, Natasha and 18-year-old Isabella.

At first, to see what happened to her mother robbed Natasha of much of her sparkle. Mejos recalled, “She told me, ‘It was not fair, Mommy.’”

But the child has responded well to Mejos’ steady recovery and her determination to reclaim every bit of her life as she can. Natasha “has become bubbly again,” Mejos said.

She isn’t yet done with doctors, but Mejos said her return to work part-time has been good for her as she moves beyond the nightmare.

“You can’t just sit and wallow in it,” she said.

“I’m just trying to figure out how to return to normal.”

Chris Smith is at 707-521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

Editor’s Note: Shernaz Mejos works for Community First Credit Union. An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the company.ress

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