Scott Martin: Soccer Coach Battles Back from Flesh-Eating Disease
November 2013 Issue
The last memories Scott Martin has of himself from July 1993 were as a healthy, strong, 35-year-old collegiate soccer coach, who was in the best shape of his life. Several days before, he had been playing a casual game of soccer at a Nike Soccer Camp outside Chicago, Illinois.
"I was fine," Martin remembers of that day. "Maybe a little fatigued." But, as he felt more fatigued and then nauseous with chills, he decided to go to the emergency room at St. Mary's Janesville Hospital, Wisconsin. The attending physician treated him for heat exhaustion and told him to go home and rest. A day passed and he did not improve, so he returned to the emergency room. That is the last thing Martin says he remembers. He went into multiple organ failure and shock. The physicians put him on life support in a medically induced coma.
When he woke more than a month later, the life he knew and loved as coach of the women's soccer team at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire (UW-Eau Claire) was over, and a new one was about to begin-one that meant learning how to live without his hands and feet.
The Miracle Man
When he finally woke, Martin's physician told him he had contracted a serious illness, "one which nearly killed you." Martin learned he had Group A Streptococcus (GAS), a bacterium more commonly recognized as the cause of strep throat and impetigo. In most cases, the bacterium can reside unnoticed or with only mild symptoms and discomfort. In rare cases, the bacterium infects the blood, muscle, fat tissue, or lungs of a person and can rapidly become life threatening.
Martin was one of those rare cases in which GAS had caused necrotizing fasciitis. His physician explained to him that necrotizing fasciitis, also called the "flesh-eating disease," caused the skin on his hands and feet to become gangrenous. In an effort to save his life, surgeons were forced to amputate both of his hands to his forearms and the front part of both feet. The hospital staff dubbed Martin "the Miracle Man" because he survived his illness.
"I went from a size nine shoe to a size four," says Martin, who recounts that day in the intensive care unit (ICU) in his memoir, Moving Forward In Reverse, which he co-wrote and published in 2013. "My arms rested outside the beige blanket, nestled against the shallow of my abdomen. What had once been two well-rounded, muscled biceps were now nothing more than sagging skin and bones.... My arms ended like an unfinished sentence."
Within three weeks of emerging from his coma, Martin was transferred out of the ICU and to a rehabilitation unit. Martin says being a coach helped him through the early part of his recovery and the beginning of the long road of rehabilitation.
"I knew all about OT [occupational therapy] and PT [physical therapy]. Now people were coaching me," he says.
He was also extremely determined to move beyond his limitations, according to Tom Peck, one of Martin's best friends and a former colleague at UW-Eau Claire. "His goal was to get back to work and get back to coaching," says Peck, who credits Martin for teaching his three sons the "correct way" to play soccer. It was Peck who also helped Martin learn to drive again.
Making the Myos Work
Martin was initially fitted with two body-powered prostheses (hooks) while still in rehabilitation in Janesville, before eventually being fitted with a pair of myoelectric hands-an event that Martin says he anxiously awaited. He recalls the first time his physician told him about prostheses that can be controlled using electromyography signals. "When he asked if I had ever heard of myoelectric hands, I said no and asked if they were just another form of hooks," says Martin, who remembers dreading the thought of having to wear "Captain Hook-inspired contraptions" the remainder of his life.
Accepting that he needed prostheses, in fact, was one of the most difficult aspects he had to face during his recovery, Martin says. He writes in his memoir, "In the same way that seeing my arms unbandaged forced me to confront the fact that three-quarters of an arm was all I had left, donning a prosthesis would mean facing the true consequences of my amputations. I would become one of 'those' people you saw on the street, part human, part robot."
It was Zenon Wojcik, CP, a 30-year practitioner with the Winkley Orthotics and Prosthetics patient care facility in Eau-Claire, who fitted Martin with his myoelectric hands and helped him learn to master their use. Wojcik met Martin after he was transferred from Janesville to the rehabilitation unit at Sacred Heart Hospital, Eau-Claire. Wojcik says Martin let him know immediately he "absolutely hated the connotation of using hooks. He was very excited to get the myos."
So excited, in fact, that Wojcik says he fitted Martin for the myoelectric hands while the skin on his residual limbs was still healing. "We pushed the envelope a little bit," he says. "At four months, it was a little premature, but Scott did well and he learned quickly. He worked his butt off. He was determined to make those myos work."
It was also Martin's eagerness that occasionally got in the way of his recovery, says Wojcik, who retired from the profession about two years ago. "He sometimes moved faster than what his body was ready for, and he would get frustrated and discouraged." Wojcik says almost anyone can learn to use a prosthesis, but a patient's disposition also plays a large part in the success of his or her rehabilitation. "You have it fit the head as well as the limb," he says. "You have to stay as encouraging and as supportive as possible."
The Pain of Standing
The rate at which Martin's feet healed always seemed to lag behind the rate at which his arms healed. Martin writes about standing using the "table of pain" for the first time after his illness: "It felt as if they had amputated my feet only yesterday and I was standing on the raw, gaping wounds.... I was aware of nothing beyond the excruciating pain in the soles of my feet."
Like Martin's pain, his therapist was also unrelenting. Martin says he was determined to meet his therapist step for step in his recovery, which ran the gamut of fighting recurring infections in his feet, to several reconstructive foot surgeries, to lengthening the Achilles tendon. Today, Martin is able to walk with the use of AFOs. He began using his current pair two years ago. He says the donning process has become very simple: "AFOs stay in boot. Foot slides into AFO. Leg is then secured using two Velcro straps around calf."
His right foot, which he calls his "bad foot," still gives Martin a difficult time. He says he tends to develop open wounds on the bottom of his foot "during days of excessive walking such as travel days, which require walking through airports followed by touring."
Most recently, Martin developed an open wound during the first day of a family trip to Washington DC. The family had done a lot of walking before he was able to rest and remove the AFOs. "Inserting gel pads have helped," he says. "But they may slip, and powders have helped but don't last all day."
Martin has managed to overcome the setbacks he has endured along the way. He will be the first to say his life now is infinitely more fulfilling than the one that was taken. He has been married since 1998 to a physician he met after making a spontaneous trek to Washington state. They have five adopted children from Romania and Ethiopia. He has settled, with his wife and children, in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Martin says that he once thought losing his ability to play and coach soccer was the equivalent to losing himself because a part of him would always be an athlete. Enough time, however, has passed since his days on the soccer field, and he views things much differently today. "How narrow-minded such thoughts seem now that my life has evolved into so much more," he says.
Betta Ferrendelli is a freelance writer based in Denver, Colorado.