California teenager battles infection with flesh-eating bacteria

Zach Rowland, 17, of Atasacadero, was recently diagnosed with an extraordinarily rare disease: necrotizing fasciitis, or flesh-eating bacteria.  He underwent more than 10 surgeries at Valley Children's Hospital in Madera.

Zach Rowland, 17, of Atasacadero, was recently diagnosed with an extraordinarily rare disease: necrotizing fasciitis, or flesh-eating bacteria. He underwent more than 10 surgeries at Valley Children’s Hospital in Madera.

Photo courtesy of Carrie Callahan

Less than a month ago, Zach Rowland was living like a typical Atascadero teenager stuck in a global pandemic, exploring nature, skateboarding with friends and indulging in photography.

He loved to visit Sunken Gardens and other sites around town to capture photos using his iPhone and upload them to his Instagram @photography_by_zach_51.

Then, in February, his family came down with breakthrough cases of COVID-19, leaving Zach, his 12-year-old brother, Matthew Noday, and his mother, Carrie Callahan, lying with the virus.

Curiously, at the same time, Zach began complaining of shooting pains in his right side, his mother said.

She watched with concern as her 17-year-old son’s skin turned red, swollen and inflamed.

“The pain got so bad he could barely sit on the couch, and I ended up calling an ambulance because I didn’t want to move him,” Callahan said.

After visits to two San Luis Obispo County emergency rooms, a CT scan, extensive blood work, and intravenous drips, doctors finally pinpointed the cause: necrotizing fasciitis – also known as bacteria-eating bacteria. flesh.

“We were both scared,” Carrie Callahan said after hearing the diagnosis.

This is because the scary condition is extremely rare and potentially fatal. It requires intensive antibiotic treatment and multiple surgeries, according to Dr. Babak Sarani, director of trauma and acute care surgery at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C.

“It’s a nasty, nasty disease,” Sarani told The Tribune. “It can easily kill you if a surgeon doesn’t get it done fast enough and you don’t get the proper antibiotics.”

Because of this risk, Zach needed immediate emergency surgery and a higher level of care than the Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center could provide.

So on February 14, he was taken by ambulance to the airport and sent to Valley Children’s Hospital in Madera by medical evacuation, where he has been living for three weeks, Callahan said.

Since then, Zach has already undergone several surgeries as doctors work to fight the infection and repair the damage. They are making progress, but he still has a long way to go before he is fully healed.

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Photo courtesy of Carrie Callahan

For the teenager from Atascadero, 10 surgeries and more to do

When he arrived at Valley Children’s Hospital, Zach was immediately rushed into surgery.

Since his admission, he has received infusions of strong antibiotics and has had at least 10 surgeries, his family said.

“It was really hard to get the idea that when they said multiple surgeries they meant multiple surgeries,” Zach’s grandmother, Ruth Callahan, said.

Sarani said surgeons must step in to remove dead, damaged or infected tissue in a sequence of procedures. Because the infection spreads quickly, doctors will allow recovery time after surgery, reassess the wound, and perform another surgery after 12 to 36 hours.

The surgeon cannot close the wound until the infection and dead tissue are completely removed, Sarani said.

While the idea of ​​10 surgeries over a three-week period is staggering, it indicates the teenager’s doctors are seriously treating the dangerous infection, Sarani said.

“That tells me the surgeon is very aggressive and is going to get ahead of the infection, which will be key to Zach’s survival,” he said.

Zach is lucky the infection hasn’t spread to his bones or vital organs, which can happen in patients with necrotizing fasciitis, his grandmother said.

After surgeries to control the spread of the infection and multiple daily infusions of antibiotics, the teenager entered the third phase of his recovery – closing the wound, with the help of plastic surgeons at Valley Children’s Hospital.

This is an arduous and deliberate process that will also require multiple surgeries and intensive care to prevent further infection.

In short, Zach still has a long way ahead of him.

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Sarani said. “He’s got to kind of just speed things up over time and realize that it’s going to end, but it’s going to take months and months.”

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Photo courtesy of Carrie Callahan

Flesh-eating bacteria are rare and not contagious

Necrotizing fasciitis is so rare that the typical physician may only see two cases in their career, Sarani said in an article for the National Organization for Rare Disorders.

As a result, the condition is often missed or misdiagnosed. When this happens, the error can be fatal, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The condition gets its common name — flesh-eating bacteria — because the invading bacteria kill body tissue, according to the CDC.

How Zach contracted the bacteria remains a medical mystery, his family said.

Although he was COVID-positive when he first noticed the symptoms of the infection, that doesn’t mean the two conditions are related, Sarani said, adding there was no evidence. that necrotizing fasciitis is associated with COVID-19. It’s possible, he said, that the coronavirus infection suppressed Zach’s immune system, making him more susceptible to bacterial infection after exposure.

Differentiating necrotizing fasciitis from another type of infection is tricky, and usually there’s a good chance that the redness and inflammation that comes from an infection is the result of another, less deadly type of bacteria. Sarani said.

A clue that the infection was serious: necrotizing fasciitis is completely debilitating.

“It will knock you down,” Sarani said. “It won’t just be ‘my arm hurts’. It’s ‘I feel bad.’

The relationship between inflammation and pain is another indicator of flesh-eating bacteria.

“What separates necrotizing fasciitis from other infections is this creeping infection under the skin,” he said. “Even areas that aren’t red all of a sudden will start to hurt.”

Despite the scary description, “flesh-eating bacteria” aren’t contagious and there was no way to prevent it from happening, Sarani said.

“It’s not something he did. It’s not intentional,” the doctor said. “It’s really…a very rare occurrence in an otherwise normal 17-year-old boy,” said Sarani: “It would be like blaming someone for having cancer. It’s not their fault.”

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Photo courtesy of Carrie Callahan

How SLO County residents can help Zach during his recovery

Throughout this ordeal, Zach was polite, kind and caring, his family said.

“When he finally got the breathing tube out and they got him out of the sedation, he just kept thanking and thanking and thanking everyone who came into the room,” Ruth Callahan said. “Thank the nurses, thank the doctors, thank everyone for taking care of him.”

Extended pediatric hospital stays not only impact the patient, but the caregivers as well.

Zach’s mother, Carrie Callahan, and grandmother, Ruth Callahan, have been staying in an RV parked on the grounds of Valley Children’s Hospital since the teenager was transferred there.

For the first five days of her hospitalization, Carrie and Ruth had to self-quarantine in the RV due to their exposure to Zach, who was still positive for COVID-19 at the time, the family said.

The mother and grandmother alternated between staying by Zach’s bedside and going home for a day or two to recuperate, his grandmother said.

“It’s just better for him to have one of us as much as possible,” Ruth Callahan said.

Once the plastic surgery is complete, Zach will be discharged from the hospital and sent home with wound care instructions and the understanding that the recovery process from necrotizing fasciitis can take months.

“He has to be really, really patient because it will take a long time to heal,” Sarani said. “But it will heal. “

Nicole Catherine Photography Photo courtesy of Carrie Callahan

Sarani said it was important for Zach and his family to try to get back to normal life, maintain a healthy and nutritious diet, and connect with friends and family.

Throughout this ordeal, Zach was compassionate, his mother said.

He is concerned for the well-being of his family and overwhelmed by the support he has received from his extended family, teachers at Atascadero High School and the wider community, Carrie Callahan said.

“His biggest worry was me and all the hospital bills that are coming,” she said, trying to hold back tears. “I told him he didn’t have to worry while you were better.”

Either way, he still worries because Callahan is a single parent and health crises are expensive, his grandmother said.

Zach’s uncle, Andrew Callahan, has set up a GoFundMe page for members of the community who want to lend their support to the Atascadero teenager’s recovery.

Proceeds from the GoFundMe campaign will be used to support Zach and his family.

The family raised about $9,660 of a fundraising goal of $20,000 on Wednesday, according to the GoFundMe page.

To donate, visit

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