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After illness, new life

Before Rebecca Eckes went in this spring for what her family hoped would be the last of many surgeries, she, her husband Shane and their five kids drove to Florida to enjoy the beach and a day in Disney World.

It was a step toward normalcy, Eckes said, as was her March reconstructive surgery which re-arranged the skin on her stomach to look a little more like it did before she got a hysterectomy and was infected by a flesh-eating bacteria, before she underwent 18 surgeries in the space of a month to cut out infected portions of her stomach and upper legs, before she lost her job due to inability to work and home, in part, because of the loss of income and the medical bills.

"I couldn't even look at myself in the mirror anymore," said the Cottage Grove mother, "and my life was completely upside down. I couldn't work; I had a hard time getting out of bed; I was on all these medications; I had seen what it did to my husband and what it did to my kids and I wanted some sort of normalcy. I needed me to look like me as much as I possibly could."

Eckes' reconstructive surgery was successful, and while normalcy seems closer than at any point since she contracted the sometimes deadly infection following the surgery in January of last year, it still seems distant, she said.

She passed another major milestone in July, by discontinuing use of painkillers.

"My head -- it went from really foggy to really clear again, and I'm starting to remember more and more now," she said, though it's still hard for her to remember many details of her more than yearlong ordeal, during which she was in and out of the hospital and addicted to painkillers and therefore susceptible to mood swings. She said she wonders if she might be subconsciously protecting herself with her inability to remember many details from her illness.

"It's kind of like a nightmare, honestly," Eckes said. "It's like a really bad dream that I just couldn't wake myself up from."

It was a routine surgery gone horribly wrong.

Eckes went in for a hysterectomy to relieve chronic stomach pains. But in the days following the surgery, she gained 50 pounds and could barely walk -- she remembers falling while trying to go to the bathroom. Somehow she had contracted the aggressive bacterial infection. To get the infection -- called necrotizing fasciitis -- during a hysterectomy is extremely rare, said Dr. Peter Bornstein, a consulting physician with St. Paul Infectious Disease Associates. The survival rate is greater than 90 percent for someone, like Eckes, with no underlying health conditions, however, the infection can be fatal for someone with cancer, diabetes or other health problems. Survivors can face long-term side-effects like muscle loss, he said.

Following her first three-month stint in the hospital, she went back last September for reconstructive surgery during which the infection returned, and then her successful surgery in March.

Now, Eckes is no longer fighting for her life, but battles remain.

"I'm still not sure when it's going to end," Shane Eckes said. "It's still just a process, I guess."

Struggles now include functioning while sometimes unable to eat and sleep, finding enough time to spend with her kids when some days the pain or nausea is so bad she can't get out of bed and overcoming the anger she feels about what her family has been through.

"I'm nowhere near to even 25 percent of what normal moms do every day," Eckes said. "It kills me that I can't get up and make breakfast or I can't cook supper because I'm just that exhausted that I can't even keep my head up anymore and my stomach hurts to the point where I can't stand up."

Her kids, ages 10 through 15, have had varied reactions to their mom's illness -- from trying to be perfect to becoming quiet and resentful to taking on some of the roles that their mother used to play for younger siblings.

"When I looked at my kids that used to be happy and fun-loving ... now they had this look on their face like they were withered and worried," she said. "Everybody's almost back to normal now."

If there's been a silver lining to her ordeal, it's the kindness that friends and family have shown, she said. Close friends have provided moral support. Shane's father pays for Eckes' heath insurance and his sister organized a fundraiser last year to help pay medical bills. Even strangers contributed, Eckes said.

"I didn't expect the amount of compassion," she said. "People just donated their money, and people don't have money anymore. I really appreciate what everybody's done."

Her prolonged illness, and the accompanying mood swings and other side effects, have also revealed her husband's fortitude, Eckes said.

She said she's accepted that there are some things she's just going to have to learn to deal with, and she's trying to get her life back on track. She's planning to start taking college classes again in January, and had plans to celebrate her birthday by attending the Tim McGraw concert at the state fairgrounds with her husband and two friends.

She said she's continuing to work toward making peace with what happened to her by journaling and focusing on what she's grateful for.

"As I see the kids adjusting to their life and trying to get back to normal, it's not as bad," she said. "There's a whole lot more smiling and laughing and joking around ... I can realize they're going to be OK, there's going to be a scar, but they're going to be OK."

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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