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After Beating Cancer, Our Daughter Died from a Superbug Infection

Posted on by CDC's Safe Healthcare Blog
Guest Authors: Steve Littlejohn and Stefanie London
picture of Meredith Littlejohn
This picture of Meredith Littlejohn was taken the day after she found out that her leukemia had returned. “I was always so impressed with how resilient she was,” said her brother Chaz Littlejohn. “And this picture really captures her spirit.” As the youngest of the family, Meredith relied heavily on Chaz and her sister, Madeline, for support throughout her illness.

Modern medicine as we know it relies on effective antibiotics. I learned this in the most difficult way imaginable when our daughter was on her way to beating cancer only to succumb to an antibiotic-resistant infection.

When Meredith entered her senior year, she was at the top of her high school class with a bright future ahead of her. But, that November, we got the news that no parent ever wants to hear—Meredith was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. Over the next several months, our precious daughter bravely endured multiple rounds of chemotherapy. Springtime brought us the happy news that her cancer was in remission, just in time for Meredith to enjoy her senior prom and attend her graduation. She went into summer looking forward to joining Emory University in the fall.

Unfortunately, she never made it to Emory.

The cancer came back in June, and Meredith had to undergo more chemotherapy. Nevertheless, she forged ahead with her characteristic optimism. As the chemo compromised her immune system, she became more susceptible to infections. When she contracted Candida, a fungal infection, her doctors tried several combinations of treatments before successfully finding one that worked. Her next infection—Pseudomonas—proved more challenging to treat because of the limited number of antibiotics that can defeat this type of bacteria.

In October, Meredith had a bone marrow transplant as part of her cancer treatment. Although her immune system was pretty much wiped out, there finally seemed to be a light at the end of the tunnel. However, the Pseudomonas infection, which had started as a localized infection under her arm, persisted. The doctors decided to give her colistin – an antibiotic of last resort because of its potentially dangerous side effects.

Ultimately, even the colistin didn’t succeed in defeating Meredith’s Pseudomonas infection. The infection spread to her lungs and then to her bloodstream, ultimately causing her to go into septic shock. Her medical team was able to stabilize her, but it happened again and the infection prevailed. Despite amazing advances in cancer care, and a series of modern medicine miracles that helped our daughter fight leukemia, she was gone. We didn’t have effective antibiotics to treat an infection, which can occur in the course of treating cancer.

If Meredith were with us today, she’d be fighting antibiotic resistance, so we’re filling in for her. What happened to our daughter should not happen to anyone. It should not even be a possibility. As a society, we’ve made world-changing advances in medicine over the past 100 years that have enabled everything from organ transplants to chemotherapy to dialysis, but that is all at risk if we can’t figure out how to defeat the increasingly drug-resistant bacteria that continue to emerge.

Currently, fewer than 1 in 4 antibiotics in development globally represent the new drugs classes that are key to fighting resistant bacteria. And only one – ONE – of these novel drugs has the potential to treat Pseudomonas infections. This is unacceptable.

While most of us aren’t in a position to discover the next antibiotic, there are steps each of us can take during U.S. Antibiotic Awareness Week – and every week – that can make a difference:

Stay informed. Get involved. Spread the word.

Please join me in honoring Meredith and all the other patients like her by raising awareness about the urgent and growing threat of superbugs. Every little bit helps, and together we can ensure that combating antibiotic-resistant bacteria remains a national priority and create a future in which modern medicine prevails and patients like our daughter survive.

More on this topic:

Steve Littlejohn and Stefanie London live in St. Louis, MO. They share Meredith’s story to draw greater attention to the need for new antibiotics, increased research, and the proper use of these life-saving drugs in all settings.

Posted on by CDC's Safe Healthcare Blog

One comment on “After Beating Cancer, Our Daughter Died from a Superbug Infection”

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

    Thank you Stefanie and Steve for raising awareness regarding this very serious threat, and not even just in the immune compromised. It calls for judicious use of antibiotics which is easier said than done when dealing with invasive infections and life threatening situations.

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