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The will to live: Disfigured, but unbroken

Jeff Munson
Nevada Appeal News Service
Jonah M. Kessel / Tahoe Daily Tribune
ALL |

To those around her, South Lake Tahoe resident Tanya Gludau perceives herself as out of sight and out of mind. But she knows she’s really not: In her periphery, she notes the eyes of other shoppers. They’re either curiously transfixed – especially if they are the eyes of children – or they look, shift and dart away.

“I’ve gotten used to the stares,” the 34-year-old woman said. “At first, they were annoying, but anymore I just don’t think about it.”

And so it goes for Gludau: March 22 marked an agonizing one-year anniversary. On that day a year ago, she lost half of her right upper body to a strange infection called necrotizing fasciitis.

This flesh-eating bacteria, considered fatal within 72 hours, incubated from a form of Strep A that all humans have in their bodies; the bacteria formed a perfect storm in her bloodstream. For Gludau, it was identified 70 hours after it had begun to seize her arm, killing the flesh in her fingertips first, then moving to her hand, arm, chest and shoulder.

Eight Salt Lake City surgeons spent nearly 12 hours to stop the bacteria from moving to its deadly destination: her brain.

They stopped it, but in the process had to sever Gludau’s entire arm above her collarbone. Doctors also had to make deep cuts down through the right side of her neck and chest, removing her right breast.

A cut, a strain

and incubation

March 19, 2007, began like any other day, but for Gludau, it would end with a disease she wouldn’t even know she had contracted.

Gludau had landed a cooking job at a catering company that prepared food for employees at a semiconductor company in Pocatello, Idaho.

She was a routine sous chef and liked working her 6 a.m. Monday-through-Friday shifts, leaving her weekends to enjoy the outdoors.

She had been on the job for three weeks. She prepped first thing in the morning, beginning with celery using her personal 10-inch, straight-edged chef knife. As she began to chop, the knife plunged into her middle right finger.

“It looked like a deep paper cut. It bled a little bit. I told everyone in the kitchen that I cut my finger,” she said, explaining that announcing a cut is proper practice in a kitchen.

She found a bandage to fit her cut, rewashed the wound, dried it, applied the bandage and put on a pair of gloves so she could continue working.

Four hours passed without a thought about the cut – though unbeknownst to Gludau, she was experiencing the wound’s peripheral effects. As she lifted 60-pound pots of potatoes off a stove, she felt the muscle in her right shoulder pull.

The pain shot down her arm, she said. “I told my supervisor that I had pulled a muscle, but that I wanted to continue working and that it wasn’t that serious,” she recalled.

The day after the work incident, Gludau told Peerens that she wanted to go to the hospital. She called her supervisor and told her she had deep shoulder pain and flu symptoms.

She arrived at work, and her supervisor took her to the hospital, where Gludau filled out workplace injury forms. She said she wanted blood work done, but the doctors declined, saying she didn’t need it, Gludau said.

Doctors gave her 800 mg of ibuprofen, put her arm in a sling and advised her not to work for the next few days. The doctor also told her that she would “feel worse before getting better.”

Two days after the work incident, Gludau lay in bed, more fits of chills and sweats racking her body.

“I was in excruciating pain from my neck into my shoulder,” she said.

She developed chest pains and returned to the hospital. Once again, Gludau said, she asked for blood tests. And once again, staff told her that a blood test wasn’t necessary. “The medical staff gave me Tylenol and told me to stay in bed,” she said.

At about 2 a.m. on the third day of her travail, Gludau woke up dazed and thirsty, and went into the kitchen for water. When she turned on the light, she saw that all five of the fingertips on her right hand were black, and that her palm was purple with dots.

“And then I looked up my arm. My hand and arm were bubbling, like there was something growing inside the skin like you’d see on the SciFi Channel. I asked myself, ‘Am I dreaming?’ “

She woke up her boyfriend Neil Peerens, who reminded her that the doctor said it would get worse before it got better.

“No, something is wrong,” she told him, showing him her hand.

“We’ve got to get you to the hospital,” Peerens told her.

‘What’s wrong with my arm?’

For six weeks, Gludau was in an induced coma. It was 2 a.m. May 4 when she “came to” – a planned awakening so her parents could be by her side. But she woke up early. “I looked around and knew that I was in a hospital,” she said. “I knew something was wrong, because I reached for the nurse button, and it was on my right side. I couldn’t reach it.”

Gludau asked a nurse for her cell phone sitting on her bedside table. She called Peerens.

“We started talking, and I told him something isn’t right. I told him my arm was missing. I asked, ‘What’s wrong with my arm?’ Neil said to reach over and touch my shoulder. I did.”

He explained to her what had happened, and then they broke down.

Complacency is not an option

Having finished his college degree while Gludau was in the coma, Peerens asked her where she wanted to go after the hospital. She told him, “I want to go to Lake Tahoe with you.”

On March 18 after months of intense therapy to relearn basic skills, Gludau began her second gig working for Starbucks as a barista. She admitted being nervous that first morning – thinking she wouldn’t be able to do what she had done before – but the challenges soon vanished. She made five drinks in the first several hours of retraining.

“It’s second nature,” she said. “The only thing I can’t do at the moment is tie the garbage ties.”

Gludau’s medical bill is $2.5 million and growing.

Gludau owes much of her will to Peerens, she said. She inspires him, Peerens s

“She has this incredible will to live,” Peerens said. “While others are out there not understanding or reaching their higher consciousness, she has made it her mission. She sees what many don’t: That she has a reason and a purpose. She has the will to live every day and make the most of every day.”