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Giving Time: A Scary Illness, a Special Doctor, and the Chance to Help Save Lives Ignite a Family's Passion

June 9, 2011

Wendi Gordon Shelist did not know the meaning of the words “slow down.” Between owning a retail business with her husband David and raising two children on the north side of Chicago, she trained for the Chicago Marathon. She rarely got sick.

So when Wendi started feeling flu-like symptoms on a weekday six years ago, she took the usual medicines and went to bed without worry. But Wendi was in danger. The Doctors Were Stumped Wendi’s temperature spiked to 105 degrees, sending her and David to the emergency room of a local hospital. She spent 10 hours there, aching all over, until doctors concluded she had a virus and sent her home.

Within a few hours, Wendi’s pain became more severe and settled in the lower part of her right leg. Then her leg began to swell. She and David went back to the hospital, and this time, she was admitted.

“Doctor after doctor came into my room trying to diagnose me, and they were stumped,” Wendi says. “It wasn’t until the next morning that an orthopedic resident diagnosed necrotizing fasciitis.”

A Small Window of Time

Better known as “flesh eating bacteria,” necrotizing fasciitis (NF) is a type of strep infection with a 24 - 48 hour window for treatment, after which it enters the bloodstream and starts attacking vital organs. But its flu-like symptoms make diagnosis difficult.

“Doctors told David and my parents that in 75 percent of NF cases, patients lose limbs—and nearly half of all cases are fatal,” Wendi says.

Wendi needed surgery immediately to save her leg and her life. That’s when her family met critical care surgeon John Kirby, MD.

An Unexpected Level of Caring

From the day of her first surgery to cut away infected tissue, Dr. Kirby helped Wendi beat the infection. He then performed surgery to help Wendi recover her mobility after her long battle. The surgery left her with a wound from the top of her foot to her knee, covering the entire side of her leg, and which removed one of the muscles that help to flex the foot.

“Dr. Kirby gave my family a level of caring I didn’t know existed,” Wendi says. “He not only performed my surgery, but personally wrapped my wound every day. He even gave us all of his phone numbers so we could reach him while he was on a family vacation.”

A Dream to Help More People Survive

After six weeks in the hospital and more than a year of healing, Wendi recovered from NF and learned how to walk again. But her mind kept returning to others whose outcomes have not been as positive as hers.

“The scary thing is that there is no cut-and-dried answer for why NF attacks,” Wendi says. “It can happen to anyone.” Adds Wendi, “We wanted to do something to help more people with NF get diagnosed within that crucial two day window. Our desire became the Wendi Gordon Shelist NF Foundation.”

“Our Gift Will Go a Long Way”

Through the Wendi Gordon Shelist NF Foundation (find out more at wgsf.org), Wendi and her family raise funds to educate medical personnel, particularly in emergency departments, about NF so that they can recognize the symptoms earlier. Most of their funding has gone to produce seminars and educational materials at hospitals with doctors who are passionate about NF awareness, including Dr. Kirby.

When Dr. Kirby moved to Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine, the Shelists were delighted to follow him.

“Dr. Kirby’s enthusiasm for NF education is the light that keeps us going,” Wendi says. “He has such a strong heart and puts every ounce of his being into everything he does. We’re lucky to have him as a doctor and as a friend.”

One of Wendi’s most rewarding experiences has been funding grand rounds for Dr. Kirby at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. During this classic method in medical education, Wendi shared her story with an audience of more than 100 doctors, residents and medical students. Each of these doctors will spread their knowledge of NF throughout Barnes-Jewish and other hospitals, touching the lives of many more patients.

“We know that what our foundation can give to the Necrotizing Fasciitis Education Fund for Barnes-Jewish Hospital will go a long way under the leadership of Dr. Kirby. If our gifts can lead to one diagnosis that saves a life or limb, it will all be worthwhile,” Wendi says.

According to Dr. Kirby, Wendi and her family have made a material difference in the way physicians are trained to diagnose and treat NF and other serious wound infections.

“Wendi is a wonderful example of how the care of one person can lead to improvements for all patients, and I look forward to all we can do together,” Dr. Kirby says. “Battling infections will always be with us as part of surgery, but no matter how bacteria or antibiotics change and improve, nothing will surpass the importance of the patient’s engagement in driving our success.”

Anyone Can Make a Difference Wendi and her family are living life to the fullest these days, and their apparel shops are thriving. Wendi is even running again. And she continues to find inspiration in her decision to be active so that others will share her happy ending.

“A few years ago, a young lady who worked in the hospital while I was there came into my shop and recognized me,” Wendi says. “She told me that my story put NF at the top of everyone’s mind in their emergency department. It’s moments like this that prove that anything you can do—whether it’s giving financially, or volunteering, or taking time to share your health experience—will make a difference for someone.”

Support the Necrotizing Fasciitis Education Fund (#6873), by making a gift online today.

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