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Model recounts horrific story of losing her leg to toxic shock syndrome

Model and women’s health activist Lauren Wasser shares her harrowing story of losing a leg to toxic shock syndrome (TSS). (Photo: Getty Images)

“They were telling my mum and my godfather to start preparing my funeral because there was no way I was walking out of there — it would have been a miracle,” 28-year-old model Lauren Wasser recalls from her time in a hospital in 2012.

Wasser, then 24, had a brush with death after contracting toxic shock syndrome (TSS) from a tampon.

Her day had started like any other. She was out of tampons, went to the store to buy some, and used one after she got home. She spent the rest of that day texting friends, lounging on her bed, and getting ready for a birthday party that night. But as time passed, she started to feel unwell.

“I was deciding if I was even going to make it [to the party] because I was feeling worse and worse as the day went on,” she told Style Like U.

Wasser describes flu-like symptoms — headache, nausea, and fever — and despite feeling worse and worse, she made her way to the party. Once she got there, however, her friends told her she looked sick and sent her home.

She went home and got into bed thinking she just needed to rest. The next thing she remembers is waking up to her dog barking and the police banging on her door.

Wasser’s mother had phoned police after she didn’t answer several calls. Her mother knew she was sick and had grown worried. Wasser assured her that she just needed to rest and sent the police away.

But it wasn’t long before they returned. Wasser had gone hours without checking in, and police returned to her apartment to find her collapsed on the floor.

“I had a 107°F fever; my kidneys were failing; I had a heart attack,” said Wasser. “Thank God there was an infectious disease doctor there [at the hospital] because as soon as they found me, I was plummeting so bad they couldn’t understand why a healthy, young 24-year-old like me was dying.”

After doctors discovered and removed her tampon, she began responding better to treatment. She was put into a medically induced coma and given antibiotics and fluids to help flush out the bacteria.

TSS is a rare complication resulting from exposure to staphylococcus aureus (staph) bacteria. It can also be caused by group A streptococcus (strep) bacteria. Common causes are cuts, burns, and recent  surgery. Wasser’s case was caused by her tampon.

TSS cases such as Wasser’s are rare. The National Organization for Rare Diseases says that only three out of 100,000 menstruating women are affected each year. The decline in the number of cases has been credited to the Food and Drug Administration issuing standards to regulating the absorption quality of feminine hygiene products.

Warning labels on tampon boxes advise users to change tampons regularly and not leave them in for more than a few hours.

“Most major tampon manufacturers make tampons with either mixes of viscose rayon and cotton, or pure viscose rayon,” Dr. Philip M. Tierno, a professor of microbiology and pathology at the NYU School of Medicine, explained in an interview with Vice News. “Toxic shock syndrome may result if a woman has no antibody to the toxin or low antibody. Therefore, the synthetic ingredients of a tampon are a problem, whereas 100-percent cotton tampons provide the lowest risk — if any risk at all.”

In Wasser’s case, the infection caused her right leg to become gangrenous, and as a result she needed to have it amputated below the knee. Doctors originally wanted to amputate both legs, but Wasser refused.

“I saw it as a 50-50 chance,” Wasser told Vice. “We did two baby foreskin grafts, which — miraculously, thank God — were the only thing that saved my foot. Today, my toes are gone. My heel finally closed up, but it’s super sensitive, and I have no fat pad there.”

Wasser has frequent maintenance surgeries on her leg, and doctors say she may need another amputation later in her life.

“I wanted to kill myself when I got home,” said Wasser. “I was this girl — and then all of a sudden I don’t have a leg, I’m in a wheelchair, I have half a foot — I can’t even walk to the bathroom.”

Wasser’s mother and godfather began a legal challenge against the Kimberly-Clark Corporation, which manufactures the Kotex Natural Balance tampons, and Kroger and Ralph’s grocery store chain, which sold the tampons Wasser bought. The litigation is ongoing.

Wasser, meanwhile, has become a women’s health advocate and works to teach young girls about the dangers of TSS. She says that despite her difficult experience, she can extract some value from it. “My heart wouldn’t be full. I wouldn’t feel like I’m doing good,” she told Refinery29. “I wouldn’t feel like I’m making an impact in a positive way. I wouldn’t have known what that felt like, because I didn’t do that before.”

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