BRADENTON – Bradenton resident Kelli Brown Whitehead was recently hospitalized and diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis.
Whitehead’s family members suspect but have not confirmed that Whitehead’s illness is related to wading in the Gulf of Mexico.
On Monday, Nov. 4 Whitehead’s family gathered around her at Blake Medical Center for what they feared might be one of the final days of her life.
One week earlier, on Oct. 28, Whitehead’s mother, Joan Smart Brown from Memphis, Tenn., started a Kelli Brown Whitehead Facebook fundraising page for her adopted daughter.
“Kelli went wading in the Gulf of Mexico and got that flesh-eating bacteria. It spread fast and she lost all of her left leg and is on a ventilator and having kidney dialysis. She is in critical condition in a hospital in Florida. She and Robin (Kelli’s husband) are living off his disability check. Anything that you could contribute would help them out. It will be used to help him with his immediate living expenses and food,” Brown wrote at the fundraiser page.
As of Monday, 22 contributors donated $1,415 toward the initial $2,000 fundraising goal.
Brown spoke with The Sun on Saturday afternoon by text and telephone. She said she was told by another family member that her daughter was diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis. Brown planned to travel to Bradenton on Tuesday, Nov. 5, but moved her travel plans up one day due to Whitehead’s rapidly worsening condition.
On Saturday, Brown said she was told Whitehead and her husband waded in the Gulf of Mexico north of Bridge Street in Bradenton Beach approximately two weeks ago.
“They were just wading around, they weren’t even swimming. And the next day or so, her foot began to hurt so bad,” Brown said, noting that Whitehead has had Type 1 diabetes all her life.
“When they got to the hospital it was eating her leg away. She lost her leg and the fear now is it might spread to the organs. It’s horrible,” Brown said.
On Sunday, The Sun spoke with Whitehead’s daughter, Brittany Burton, who lives in Bradenton.
“My mom is diabetic. She would only walk in the water a little bit. She must have had a cut. She thought she pulled a muscle and the pain started in her thigh,” Burton said.
Burton said her mom waited about a week before she was taken by ambulance to the emergency room at Manatee Memorial Hospital where, according to Burton, she was diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis and transferred to Blake.
“She’s in very critical condition,” Burton said, noting that her mother’s organs were failing.
Burton said she asked the nurse if her mom was dying.
“He wanted to talk around it. I said, ‘Is my mom dying yes or no?’ He said yes,” Burton said.
“The Gulf that my mother loved so much is eating her alive. This has all taken place in eight or nine days at the most. It’s just unreal. It’s horrific,” Burton said.
After recently visiting her sister and returning to Tennessee, Amanda Fletcher spoke to The Sun on Sunday. She and Whitehead are sisters by birth but were adopted and raised by different families and reconnected later in life.
Fletcher and Burton both questioned why the public isn’t made more aware of potentially harmful bacteria that exist in Florida’s waters. Fletcher said the fundraising efforts will help Robin Whitehead pay his rent and other living expenses and assist with the anticipated funeral expenses.
On Monday, Burton said her mother’s doctor told her that afternoon that the exact bacteria was staphylococcus, but the doctor could not confirm it was contracted while wading in the Gulf.
On Thursday, Oct. 31, a receptionist at Blake Medical Center in Bradenton confirmed Kelli Whitehead was currently a patient, but she could not comment on her condition or the cause of it.
The Sun then contacted Chris Tittel, communications director for the Florida Department of Health in Manatee County.
Speaking by phone Thursday afternoon, Tittel said the health department had not received any notification from the Blake Medical Center regarding a case of Vibrio vulnificus, which he said is a specific bacteria medical providers are required to report.
Tittel sent a follow-up email to The Sun that included a response he received from a health department epidemiologist regarding The Sun’s inquiry.
“Necrotizing fasciitis would be the technical term for the symptom of decomposing flesh,” the epidemiologist wrote. “It depends on the bacteria that caused the necrotizing fasciitis. Vibrio is known to cause it and that is reportable, however, we had a lady in Ellenton a few months back pass away from necrotizing fasciitis. The bacteria she contracted was streptococcus, which is only reportable in children under the age of six.”
On Friday, Nov. 1, The Sun emailed Blake spokesperson Lisa Kirkland and asked if the hospital was treating anyone who came in contact with the Vibrio vulnificus bacteria or another type of bacteria, such as streptococcus, that could cause necrotizing fasciitis.
“I’m not at liberty to comment,” Kirkland responded.
Tittel said as of late Monday that the department had not received word from any health care provider confirming the cause of the illness is due to a condition reportable to the state, such as Vibriosis.
Tittel said the Florida Department of Health runs the “Swim It, Shore It, Dodge It” campaign, which discourages anyone with open cuts or wounds or weakened immune systems from entering open waters where infectious bacteria naturally occur.
A video associated with that campaign can be found online.
“The department sympathizes with family and friends over this tragedy,” Tittel said.