Permanent ink plays a part in young woman’s wellness

Elizabeth Fernandez, Editor in Chief

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Neomi Garcia, 37, mother of three, experienced what is perhaps a parent’s worst nightmare after nearly losing her eldest daughter to a severe case of staph infection and MRSA. Samantha, 22, became susceptible to the medical condition after receiving too many tattoos within a short period of time and not looking after her health properly.

“The worst thing you think you’re going to deal with is a scraped knee,” Garcia said. “You hear stories of how kids break their arm or their leg, but when you’re facing death, it’s a different story.”

Garcia’s daughter had just received her latest tattoo the week before complaining of upper back pain. Upon examining her daughter, Garcia noticed a small, pimple-like inflation just below Samantha’s left shoulder blade. Immediately, Garcia said she recognized it as infected and drove Samantha to her primary doctor the next morning. Once there, staff took a culture sample and prescribed antibiotics before sending her home.

They assumed that would be the end of it, but by Monday morning, they realized something much more serious was occurring when Samantha awoke in greater pain, barely able to breathe and completely unable to move her left arm.

“Everything started to happen at once,” Garcia recalled after that morning.

The second visit to the doctor determined that the infection had not only spread visibly down her back and to her side, toward her intestinal area, but it had also entered Samantha’s blood stream. The doctor then recommended that Samantha see an infections specialist. Garcia said that when she attempted to make an appointment, she was told the specialist would be unable to see her daughter until the following Friday. Calling it instinct, Garcia instead made the decision to take her daughter directly to the emergency room.

Shortly after arrival, Samantha was immediately hooked up to an IV containing Vancomycin, a powerful injection normally reserved for infections that have grown immune to most medications. As hospital staff soon found out, however, Samantha was allergic to it.

After being stabilized and kept overnight for observation, the family received the results of the blood work that was taken. Samantha had also developed cellulitis, a condition known for causing the amputation of body limbs.

“One minute she was having this, another minute she was having that. As more of the blood work came back they started realizing it was escalating,” said the mother.

After a heavy chunk of the infection was surgically removed from Samantha’s back, she was still left to overcome what was left in her bloodstream: traces of a staph infection and its more resistant strain, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus infection, or more simply called MRSA.

“A lot of people, when they come out of surgery, they don’t need the oxygen on to breathe anymore, and she couldn’t for two days.” Garcia said, through tears. “When you’re seeing your child lying there, the only thing you’re thinking is, yes, she’s an adult, but I still should’ve been a little more strict, because you’re still living under my roof, because I’m still your mother.”

The small pimple, or boil as people often describe it, would normally have been squeezed to release the pus inside, and should have healed after two to three days, but Samantha’s immune system had been unable to fight the initial infection off, as doctors explained to the family.

“These are things that can happen when you don’t nourish your body well enough, and when you’re not careful and you abuse your body. For instance, Sam is a very hard worker,” Garcia said. “She was out a lot, working hard, trying to make time for everybody – friends, family. She overworked her body to where [it] started to shut down without her realizing it. She wasn’t getting enough rest, wasn’t eating properly and was running pretty much on fumes.”

Samantha had been working as a full-time bank teller, trying to make enough time for her family, going out with friends on a nightly basis and drinking heavily, in addition to indulging her recently-acquired taste for body art.

The combinations of these stresses, both mentally and physically, were the major factors in her immune system’s decline according to her mother, who added, “Normally, if you’re healthy, you got enough rest, your immune system is pretty good, it won’t get worse.”

Although there is no specific occasion where Samantha recalled a possibility of being exposed to an infection, she cited the moment that she first met a nurse who asked her, “You got a tattoo, huh?” The meeting with the nurse was impactful according to Samantha, because she was told first-hand accounts of similar cases, and they were all of young adults with nutrition problems and recently-acquired tattoos.

In the three-month period preceding her hospital stay, Samantha had received four new tattoos, the smallest spanning from six or seven inches to a foot long. And of those tattoos, three were done by “scratchers,” as Aaron Bowholtz, a tattoo artist from Inkfatuation Tattoo in Bakersfield, refers to artists who work from home.

“Chances are that if they’re tattooing out of the house, it’s because they’re not any good. A shop is a place where people are professional and they work in a professional manner,” he said. “When you’re at home it could be anybody, people in prison tattoo in their cells, that doesn’t make them a tattoo artist. It certainly doesn’t make them a clean and sterile tattoo artist either.”

He added that much like restaurants have dishwashers, tattoo shops have machines called autoclaves. He referred to them as “glorified pressure cookers,” since they have the ability to reach extremely hot temperatures that kill off harmful bacteria and sterilize shop equipment.

Bowholtz continued that shops have standardized codes and make sure to keep counters and surfaces sterile, a point which Samantha’s mother said she felt was necessary and should be heavier emphasized by the state health department.

Much like Garcia had explained, Bowholtz also described a tattoo much like an open wound, and stated that when a person is unhealthy, complications like Samantha’s can arise during the healing process.

“The more open areas you have gives you a higher chance of getting an infection,” Bowholtz said.

Although he has never personally had a case to his knowledge, Bowholtz added that it is not as uncommon as people might think and even has close colleagues who have shared their client’s horror stories with him.

Bowholtz also noted that for a healthy individual it is safe and common practice to proceed tattooing after two or three weeks following an ink session. “In order for her to get sick from getting tattoos alone, she would probably have had to get all those tattoos in a week, before each one actually healed,” he said.

“If I’d noticed they were new and I saw several, I’d probably start pushing on the questions,” said Bowholtz, in response to what his reaction would have been if he had met someone like Samantha.

His advice for kids in Samantha’s age range is that they wait and take their time. “Don’t rush into it,” he said, and restated the importance of finding a professional artist.

It is unknown whether Samantha had been previously exposed to a staph infection or if it had transferred during or after a tattooing session. A hospital flier the family was given stated that staph infections and MRSA infections are commonly triggered in hospitals themselves.

“It’s basically dormant in your body until you do something and your body reacts to it,” Garcia said about her daughter’s case. “She started out with an abscess, it turned into cellulitis, from that she ended up with staph and MRSA. There are some people who stay with it for the rest of their life, she lucky enough not to.”

Although Samantha was cleared from the infections completely, she said that she still suffers from pain in the area on her back where the problem originated. Unfortunately, since her immune system declined while she was drinking, she was left with liver problems, and doctors advised against the prescription of any pain medications.

“To me honestly, it feels like a cold. It still hasn’t registered in my mind completely. When I first heard I was like, ‘OK, I’m fine.’ I don’t know why they’re being so [dramatic] about it. I’m still trying to understand it,” she said.

Samantha stated that she was unaware of the magnitude of her condition until she saw the scar from the cellulitis removal. “I thought this whole time it was just a little cut, but no [it’s] this huge chunk out my back,” said Samantha.

For Garcia the thought of receiving any body ink ever again is bitter. “This experience [has] changed our relationship because reality hits you. The only thing I keep thinking is had I waited until Friday, she wouldn’t be here. It took a big impact on our family,” said Garcia.

Before hearing her mother’s statement, Samantha was actually considering getting another tattoo to cover up the scar on her back. Although she hasn’t completely made up her mind, she stated she will be smarter, safer and healthier in the future.

Samantha had only the following to leave her peers with: “Take your time; slow down. Everyone is in such a rush to get this done or that done and no one enjoys the moment that they’re in. It’s really important to be appreciative of everything you have and everyone that you have in your life.”

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