Flesh-eating bacteria patient from Peoria tells story of survival


Christin Lipinski’s three children will soon get snuggle time with their mom. 

Lipinski, 37, has been in the hospital since January for treatment of a rare and deadly flesh-eating bacteria. The Peoria special-education teacher has undergone 23 surgeries, and her skin is healing thanks to an experimental skin spray secured by doctors of the Arizona Burn Center in Phoenix.

Burn Center Director Dr. Kevin Foster, who has treated Lipinski, announced Thursday she is a couple of weeks out from returning home.

Lipinski already has plans for what she’ll do.

“My 9-year-old has made a list. Things like the park, the zoo, things that we normally like to do,” Lipinski said. “But she says, number one is snuggle time. They want their snuggle time with their mom. So I’m looking forward to that.”

Lipinski was diagnosed with flesh-eating disease after she was rushed to a trauma center and placed on life support.

To treat the aggressive disease, doctors removed skin, tissue and muscle covering most of her left torso, Foster said. Lipinski was sedated for almost a month, she said.

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An Arizona woman has been diagnosed with a rare flesh-eating disease.
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What is the flesh-eating disease?

The disease is called necrotizing fasciitis.

Necrotizing means “causing the death of tissues” and fascia is the thin connective tissue that surrounds muscles, nerves, fat and blood vessels, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

So this bacteria kills tissue found throughout the body.

It can be deadly.

The CDC says sometimes the bacteria produce poison that destroys the tissue it infects, resulting in lost limbs and possibly death.  

How common is the disease?

It’s rare.

According to the CDC website, since 2010, between 600 and 1,200 cases of the bacteria occur annually in the United States.

Foster, from the Arizona Burn Center, said the medical facility treats about 50 people every year for the flesh-eating bacteria.

Who can get it?

In some cases, people who get the flesh-eating disease have a history of trauma or weak immune system, but most victims are healthy, Foster said.

“It’s just bad luck. We don’t really understand why some people get it and why some people don’t get it,” Foster said.

Lipinski didn’t have any abnormal symptoms. She had no wounds or scars, just pain under her left armpit that she thought was a muscle she pulled while exercising. Initially, she was diagnosed with the flu, she said. However, several days later, Lipinski was rushed to a trauma center because she kept experiencing severe pain.

A biopsy confirmed necrotizing fasciitis.

“The bacteria that causes the most deadly type of necrotizing fasciitis is the streptococcus that lives on our skin. We all have it on our skin right now,” Foster said. “So it really is a puzzling disease that this bacteria that’s normally harmless can cause this horrifying disease.” 

The disease is not infectious, he said.

‘Miraculous’ skin spray that healed her

The first step to treat necrotizing fasciitis is “emergency radical surgery” to remove the affected tissue, Foster said.

After it is fully removed then comes reconstruction.

The Burn Center in Phoenix secured FDA approval to use the experimental skin spray called ReCell.

The hospital has used this drug to treat burn victims before, but Foster believes this is the first time in the United States that ReCell has been used to treat a victim of the flesh-eating bacteria.

Doctors take a sample of the patient’s skin, mix it with enzymes that separate the skin cells into a solution and then spray that liquid on the skin, Foster said.

Lipinksi was surprised to see the effects of the drug on her skin.

“It’s beautiful, it really is. The scars are healing so fast … It’s just miraculous,” Lipinski said.    

In a kind, patient and hopeful tone, Lipinski also sent a message to her students at the Peoria Unified School District, whom she misses. 

“I will be seeing you, don’t worry. You can’t keep me away,” she said.

Reach the reporter at 602-444-3805 or laura.gomez@arizonarepublic.com. Follow her on Twitter: @Laura_GomezRod.

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