Matt Puma never thought his 6-year-old daughter would lose a limb as a result of strep throat — but on March 31, doctors were forced to amputate Tessa’s leg after she developed a flesh-eating bacteria called necrotizing fasciitis, which was caused by the common strep infection.
“I had no clue what necrotizing fasciitis even was when doctors told us, so it was obviously very scary,” Tessa’s father, Matt Puma, tells PEOPLE. “They told us that it’s very serious that she could die from it, that’s how badly the infection had spread through her body.”
Group A strep bacteria, which is the most common cause of the bacterial skin infection called necrotizing fasciitis, is generally mild and easily treatable. But if necrotizing fasciitis is developed, the harmful bacteria spreads rapidly, killing the body’s soft tissue and leading to the loss of limbs or even death.
The active kindergartner at Northfield Elementary in Northfield, Ohio, came down with strep last month and took a 10-day course of antibiotics. But when she began vomiting and hallucinating, Matt and his wife Tina rushed her to the hospital. She was wrongly diagnosed with the flu twice before they took her to Akron’s Children Hospital and doctors told the family Tessa had necrotizing fasciitis.
But by that time the bacteria had spread and surgeons had to remove her leg.
“At that point our main concern was her life,” says Matt, 35. “Hearing about her leg was very sad, but we knew the loss of a leg would never stop her from doing whatever she wants to do in life.”
Matt says Tessa is awake but “confused” about what happened to her leg.
“So we keep talking with her and she’s taking it well,” he says. “She’s not overly scared, she will lay in a sad mood and we tell her, ‘Don’t worry we’ll get you a new leg!’ ”
Since doctors amputated Tessa’s leg on March 31, they have performed multiple surgeries, including an operation to move parts of her muscle to cover exposed bone. Matt says she’ll likely undergo a skin graft procedure in the near future.
“Her surgeon literally told us it was the worst day in his career when he had to remove Tessa’s leg,” adds Matt. “Because she was a little girl who just loved running around and dancing so much and he was taking that away.”
Tessa, a dancer at Center Stage Dance studio in Northfield, loves acro and hip-hop. She competed in dance competitions and loved outdoor sports like baseball.
“Yes, this whole thing just breaks our heart,” says Matt set up a YouCaring page for Tessa. “But we tell her, ‘You’ll dance again!’ ”
Tessa’s Northfield community has rallied behind the 6-year-old, wearing pink shirts that say #TeamTessa, posting photos on a support page and hosting fundraisers to help out Matt and Tina, who also have a son Tyler, 9.
“This is such a rare thing that happened to our Tessa, but we’ve had a lot of positivity coming our way,” says Matt. “Tessa is a fighter.
“And she’ll never give up.”