Kelsey Starks salmonella scare: In her own words


by Kelsey Starks

Posted on September 26, 2013 at 11:30 PM

Updated Friday, Sep 27 at 12:01 AM

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11)-- First of all, I want to thank everyone for the outpouring of support during my illness.  The number of people who offered their thoughts and prayers while I was sick and continue to stop me in public just to ask how I’m doing is overwhelming.  I am forever grateful to each of you.

Now to the beginning ... I don't exactly know when that was. When my symptoms began I felt like I had a simple stomach bug.  I stayed home from work one day, came back the next day and felt fine after some rest.  I anchored "Good Morning Kentuckiana" as if everything was normal, but when I was reading the TelePrompTer during a segment at 10 a.m. that day everything started to go blurry. My stomach cramped up, I felt hot and clammy all over.  I knew my segment was three minutes long and I thought I could tough it out.  I couldn't.  In the middle of reading I stopped to sit down, I knew I was about to faint.

I went home and then went straight to an Urgent Care Center because I knew something was wrong.  At this point, I had chills along with my stomach cramping and blurry vision.  The urgent care doctor said I had a stomach bug and instructed me to go home, drink Ginger Ale and rest.  I followed the orders, but that night the symptoms got much worse.  The following day I went to my regular doctor.  A CAT scan revealed that I had severe inflammation in my colon --- pan colitis. I was sent to the hospital.

I checked into the hospital with a 103.5 degree temperature. Three days later my test came back positive for salmonella poisoning.  My symptoms were already being treated with antibiotics, which seemed to be working, so my course of treatment was not changed.  It was such a relief to know the cause.  But did I?

The Metro Department of Health and Wellness got involved after the diagnosis.  A nurse with the Health Department contacted me and went through a rigorous interview process.  Not only was I asked to chronicle everything I had eaten in the past 7 days, but everything I had come in contact with -- had my pet been sick?  How often do I change diapers?  Do you drink water from a filtration system?  Have you handled snakes or turtles lately? 

It turns out salmonella bacteria can live in all these places, and many more.  It can stay in your system up to five days before you have any symptoms.  While it may sound easy to recall what you've eaten lately -- do you know what you had for lunch last Thursday?

As we found a cause for the symptoms and were tracking a cause for the salmonella, I thought things were looking up.  One night I awoke with pressure and pain in my abdomen, but in a different place than previously.  I felt a different kind of sickness which was later diagnosed as pancreatitis.  An ultrasound found my pancreas and gallbladder were both infected.  At this point, doctors were worried the bacteria could spread into my blood, which would cause sepsis and put me in ICU.  They sent me into surgery that night to have my gallbladder removed. 

I was told there are a few reasons an infection like this can spread in this way.  Obviously, it is more common in elderly people or children, but it is also difficult to fight infection if your immune system is compromised. It seems that is what happened to me.  One of my doctors explained how stress and anxiety live in your gut and can break down the healthy antibodies that reside there to fight diseases like this.  It turns out my immune system was weak and had a hard time fighting this infection because I was under a lot of stress.

 With the help of a series of strong antibiotics, I was released from the hospital after eight long days and began recovering from a surgery and a serious infection.  Still awaiting news about the cause, I kept in contact with multiple doctors as well as the health department, who had been comparing notes with other states.

Metro Health and Wellness uses a relatively new system called "genetic fingerprinting" to detect and trace strains of diseases.  Officials were able to trace my strain of salmonella to a cluster of 20 cases throughout Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and Tennessee.  Of those cases, eleven were diagnosed in Louisville. 

These statistics are tricky, though, because a salmonella infection usually disappears within 4-7 days on its own, therefore, rarely is someone with my symptoms diagnosed or tested for it.  That means the number of people who are infected is likely far larger than what is documented.  Endocrinologists use a NCIS-like system to track these strains and find a commonality between them.  Unfortunately, in my case, they haven't been able to find a common denominator.

The health department did investigate every public place where I ate and found no obvious violations. 

A few weeks out of the hospital, I had a relapse with another infection called C-Difficile. My body was, basically, reacting to a lack of "good bacteria" in my system.  Another round of antibiotics ensued and I spent more time at home.

When you're sick, your first instinct is to find out what caused it and not do that thing again.  It is frustrating not knowing a cause.  My doctor said, 9 times out of 10, patients never find a cause because of the difficulty in diagnosing and testing and so much of the investigation leans on patient recall, which, as I said, is harder than it sounds.

In the end, I'm happy to be healthy.  I've learned a great lesson in appreciating your health because really, without it, there's nothing else.  It was a real wake-up call to take it slow and enjoy the ride of life.  I still have a lot of questions unanswered, but I can live with that.