A mother of three from Arizona was diagnosed with the flu after she showed symptoms of the infection, but — according to her husband — doctors missed a separate infection that turned out to be something much more serious.
On January 11, special education teacher Christin Lipinski visited a clinic near her home in Peoria, Arizona, after she started to experience flu-like symptoms and a pain on the side of her left underarm that felt like someone jabbing their thumb deep into her chest. While scans for the virus came up negative, she went home with antiviral medication for influenza.
But the next day, after Lipinski’s pain and discomfort worsened, she and her husband visited the ER at a local hospital. After the doctors ruled out heart problems to pinpoint the source of her pain, they gave Lipinski another flu test — and this time it came up positive. The hospital then advised Lipinski to rest at home.
“Once it came back that she had the flu, along with the hundred other people who had it there, they pretty much discharged us,” Lipinksi’s husband, Nathan, 36, tells PEOPLE. “They didn’t even look at the area where the pain was coming from. Would it have made a difference? I don’t know.”
On January 13, Lipinski’s pain and discomfort worsened. She visited nearby Dignity Healthcare, and doctors then transferred her to the trauma center at St. Joseph’s Hospital, where a biopsy was conducted. The next morning, doctors discovered Lipinski’s pain had stemmed from a deadly, flesh-eating disease called necrotizing fasciitis. Within an hour, Lipinski underwent two surgeries to save her life.
“It’s beyond frustrating,” Nathan says of how long it took for doctors to discover the source of his wife’s pain. “When you’re with someone that you absolutely love, you just want to do whatever you can to care or comfort them.”
Necrotizing fasciitis quickly kills the body’s soft tissue found around muscles, nerves, fat, and blood vessels and it can turn lethal in a short period of time, according to the Centers For Disease Control. As the CDC notes, the infection’s symptoms can often be confused with another illness or injury, such as when a patient confuses their pain for a “pulled muscle.” As the infection progresses, it can cause chills, fever, fatigue and vomiting, similar to influenza. (Influenza does not cause necrotizing fasciitis.)
Since 2010, about 600 to 1,200 Americans are diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis each year, though the CDC notes this may be an underestimate. The infection can be successfully treated with antibiotics and surgery to remove infected tissue if it’s caught early, which is important to a patient’s survival. According to a NCBI study, the infection has about a 27 percent mortality rate.
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Lipinski has since undergone eight surgeries, leading to a removal of 30 percent of her body’s soft tissue. She is currently in stable but critical condition, but the family says she will face numerous skin graft surgeries, reconstructive surgeries and physical therapy, and is expected to be hospitalized for several more months.
“As of now, doctors say they won’t need to amputate, but it’s a fluid situation,” Nathan says. “The professionals are trying to give me as much good news as possible, and all I can do is stay positive and just hope for the best.”
The family has started a GoFundMe page to help with the portion of Lipinski’s treatment that isn’t covered by insurance and to help the family from the loss of income over the course of the recovery process. They have raised about $13,000 as of January 23.
Nathan, who works in law enforcement, is holding on to hope for the woman he fell in love with when they met in college in 2001. As of now, Nathan is depending on help from family to take care of the couple’s three kids — ages 8, 6 and 2 — as he tries to spend as much time with his sweetheart as possible as she lays sedated in the hospital.
“Christin is a friend to everyone. It is her goal in life to help kids who need the specialized attention she can provide,” he says. “She always there to help anyone she can, just the nicest woman I have ever met. She sounds like a storybook character… but that’s what she is to me.”