Personal Battles: A student fights an illness that should have killed him

Personal Battles: A student fights an illness that should have killed him

Photo Courtesy MCT Campus Wire Service

David Shenker, junior mechanical engineering major, moved slowly toward the entrance of Bombshell Salon. He was using a walker to navigate over the wet, uneven terrain, but moving under his own power—a victory after being recently bedridden by a life-threatening infection caused by staphylococcus in his spine.

Once inside the salon, Schenker tucked the walker under a counter and surveyed the scene. The salon was beginning to come to life. The coffee pot was percolating and was giving off a rich aroma. In the back, a woman was having her dreadlocks removed and two other stylists stood waiting for the arrival of clients.

Salon owner Danielle Chetele welcomed Schenker and his girlfriend, junior computer science major Jenny Kniss. It was the long friendship of Kniss and Chetele that prompted this small business owner to open her doors and share her profits.

On Thursday, Jan. 31, Bombshell Salon held the “Save the Dave Cut-a-Thon.” Every dollar paid for services performed between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. went directly to Schenker to help pay the medical bills he had accrued while fighting the infection.

“When we heard about what happened to (Schenker) we really wanted to see if there was anything we could do to help,” Chetele said.

Near the beginning of October, Schenker began experiencing back spasms so severe he had to be hospitalized. When his back had finally relaxed enough for the doctors to perform an MRI, they could see what was either a stress fracture or an infection in his lowest vertebra.

The doctors performed a biopsy to determine which it was. When test results came back, everything was negative and it seemed Schenker was suffering only from a fractured vertebra.

Schenker returned five weeks later for a follow-up. After a second biopsy, he was rushed to the hospital.

The new biopsy showed Dave had staphylococcus in his spine, a severe infection known as osteomyelitis when it is in the bone.

“There was pus in the disk and missing bone and all kinds of crazy stuff,”
Schenker said.

The infection had also spread into his blood, a potentially fatal condition known as sepsis.

Kniss stayed beside him through it all.

“There was a moment when the doctors told us he shouldn’t be alive,” Kniss said. “I ended up crying in the office. I didn’t realize how much danger he was in.”

For the last seven weeks, Schenker has had a permanent IV line in his arm. Once every 24 hours he receives intravenous antibiotics and will continue to do so for two more weeks. After that is completed, he will need an additional three months of oral antibiotics.

He was bedridden for months, and then was only able to get around with the help of the walker.

“I’ve been stuck in bed 23 hours a day for three months,” Schenker said. “I’m the kind of guy who does stuff: go out and work on the truck, ride my bike to school.”

Schenker was forced to withdraw from three of his five classes for the fall 2012 semester and to accept incompletes in the other two. He has since completed one of those courses and will complete the other soon. For the spring 2013 semester, he has been able to re-enroll in the classes he was forced to abandon last fall.

This has been a journey for Kniss as well. She simplified her life to maximize her time with Schenker.

“I was constantly busy and overworked and stressed out, so I ditched everything. My main focus was Dave and work,” she said. “When we first got home, it was to the point where I didn’t feel comfortable leaving him alone for more than an hour, so I was constantly going to work, then coming back, then going to work, then
coming back.”

Kniss has little doubt that everything she and Schenker have gone through together will be worth it and the ordeal has actually brought them closer together in their relationship.

“Jen has been amazing,” Schenker said. “She has been a rock. I really appreciate what she’s done.”

Schenker still has goals. In addition to finishing his degree at Boise State, he plans to continue furthering his goals to expand clean energy.

“The vice president (of Greenspeed) and I recently started an Idaho non-profit called Greenspeed Research which will continue the same mission as the student club,” Schenker said. With the new non-profit he hopes to be able to reach a wider
audience.

Barring any setbacks, Schenker is expected to make a full recovery.

“It will take about a year,” Kniss says. “A year before he’s back to himself.”

A time they are both waiting for with optimism.

 The Infection:

Doctor’s cannot be sure how Schenker’s infection started.

When he injured his spine, the area became inflamed, increasing blood flow to the area as shown in the white areas of Schenker’s x-ray. This allowed the infection to take root.

It is possible the infection was already in Schenker’s blood and simply emerged because of a compromised situation.

It is also possible the infection was introduced during the first biopsy. Staphylococcus is resistant to soap and most antibiotics. Hospitals are where most infections are incurred.

The infection was so severe it ate parts of Schenker’s spine. In the second and third pictures in the sequence the hole left in his vertebra are visible. The disk between his L5 and L4 vertebrae is gone.

The bone will regenerate. The disk will not. The best-case scenario is the two vertebrae will fuse together naturally. The worst-case scenario, now that the threat of death has mostly passed, is Schenker will undergo spinal surgery where rods will be fused to his spine.

The Expense:

It is too soon to say what Schenker’s medical bills will be. However, with hospital stays, biopsies, MRI’s, prescriptions and numerous other expenses he will likely be facing a hefty bill, even with insurance.

To help, Kniss set up a Save the Dave account online.

“She set a goal of $10,000, just shooting for the stars kind of thing. We actually met it. It’s amazing,” Schenker said.

Staph facts:

Staphylococcus can be found on roughly one third of a population at any given time. That is not to say one third of people are ill; it can lie dormant, usually in the nose. The bacteria waits for the body to be compromised, or it is simply passed on to someone else. It’s just one more good reason not to go digging around up there.

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