Less than a year ago, Stephanie Spoor was celebrating the engagement of her son Zachary. "It was unfathomable she wouldn't make it to the wedding in June," said Zachary's brother Nicholas. Stephanie suffered from lupus but according to her son, the autoimmune disease was under control. When she started having breathing problems, she was admitted to a Chicago-area hospital. Within weeks, she contracted candida auris. "Doctors asked for a family meeting. It was four or five of us and 13 doctors and that's when we knew it was bad, it was bad," Nicholas recalled.
Instead of attending her son's June wedding, Stephanie watched him take his vows in a sterile hospital room. A few days later, she died at 64 years old. Candida is a yeast that can cause infection if it gets into parts of the body where it doesn't belong – like the bloodstream. It's usually treated with antifungal medicine but widespread overuse of antibiotics and antifungals has bred this superbug species of candida known as auris.
Dr. Mark Rupp, chief of infectious diseases at Nebraska Medicine, said the overuse of antibiotics and antifungals leaves fewer treatment options.
"The trumpets have been sounding for some time that this is a real problem," Rupp said. "It has the very unfortunate capacity of being very very resistant to some of our antifungals, and it also has the capacity to contaminate the environment and persist in the environment. So it's sort of the double whammy in the infection-control world."
Nebraska Medicine is at the forefront of infection control and training. It has one of only nine biocontainment units in the U.S. which has been used to treat patients quarantined with Ebola. Now, it's playing offense against candida auris and other highly contagious germs.
Candida auris can quickly spread from room to room on people, clothing and even lunch trays. The medical center has enhanced infection control training and surveillance to keep it contained.
When patients who have been treated for highly infectious illnesses are discharged, the human housekeepers are followed by a cleaning robot that zaps germs and microorganisms with an ultraviolet light. Asked if Americans should be alarmed, Dr. Rupp said, "I think they should be aware; they should be concerned. They should be engaged."
For the Spoor family, candida auris stole their chance to fully comfort Stephanie in her last days. "I can't imagine what she was feeling at the time, like looking at everybody with gowns and rubber gloves. The day she passed when they turned off the machines they said you can take your gloves off if you want to touch her. It was nice to be able to do that," Nicholas Spoor said.
Dr. Rupp said that families should ask the hospital about infection control protocols and, most importantly, keep their eyes open to make sure personnel wash hands each time they enter the room or touch objects that may be contaminated.
He also recommends a Medicare website called Hospital Compare that ranks hospital quality.
Stephanie's son Nicholas told us the hospital that treated her did everything.