An end to silence

Tim Cluff (left) is trying to return to prime high school wrestling form after surviving a near deadly battle with the methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, also called MERSA or ÒSuperbug.Ó His mother, Joy, has been campaigning to increase awareness and reporting of the infection. The two are seen outside their St. Joseph house.

ST. JOSEPH - In January 2011 St. Joseph High School sophomore Tim Cluff was looking forward to wrestling season.

A knee injury suffered playing football, which required surgery, had put him on the sidelines, but his doctor had cleared him to return to athletic competition.

What he and his parents, Joy and Matt Cluff, didn't know was that he would soon be a facing a deadly opponent - MRSA.

"Basically, it's a silent killer," said Joy Cluff of the aggressive infection that invaded her son's body. "While his (teammates) were fighting for a state title, Tim was fighting for his life."

After her son's lengthy treatment and recovery, Joy has decided to take on the state's health care system, and is lobbying for a state law to require Michigan hospitals to report such infections as methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA (pronounced "meer-sa").

Michigan is one of 13 states that does not have such reporting requirements.

"In Michigan there is no mandatory reporting of infection cases, and that's what we're trying to promote and to fight," Cluff said. "In our view this is a public safety issue. We look at Tim, he's a normal kid who almost lost his life. ... We don't know how many people have passed away or lost their lives because of these infections."

If hospitals have to report such infections "at least we have the choice of what hospitals to go to. (Without that) How do we know?" Cluff asked.

At least three legislative bills have been introduced over the years to put such requirements in place, only to go nowhere, Cluff has found out.

Why has this legislation failed to gain support?

"Mostly cost," Cluff said. "The hospitals and health care lobbyists are not for it because of the cost, because it is not cost-effective."

According to the Centers for Disease Control, MRSA is a type of staph bacteria that is resistant to certain antibiotics, including methicillin and other more common antibiotics such as oxacillin, penicillin and amoxicillin.

"That's why they call it 'Superbug,'" Cluff said.

Most MRSA infections are skin infections, but more severe or potentially life-threatening MRSA infections occur most frequently among patients in health care settings, according to the CDC.

According to the MRSA Survivors Network, the infection kills more Americans every year than HIV/AIDS or the H1N1 virus.

Tim Cluff came very close to becoming one of those statistics, and Joy Cluff is convinced that her son's infection originated during his knee surgery at Lakeland Regional Medical Center, St. Joseph.

"He had a blood infection that is a hospital-acquired infection," Cluff said. "Where else could he have got it? He had no other wounds. But if we go to court, we can't prove it."

The MRSA infection can lay dormant in the body and can spread if disturbed. That's what the Cluffs think happened to Tim, who took a kick to the knee while playing soccer, the same knee that had underwent surgery.

He woke up the next day "with the worst chill," Tim said.

He went to school but soon returned home with a fever that spiked between 102 and 104 degrees. Later, Tim felt a severe soreness in his hip.

"When I would sit down, it was always stiff, and I couldn't sit in one spot for more than 10 minutes," he said.

Doctors treated him with antibiotics, but the fever persisted. The physicians at the Lakeland Regional Medical Center's emergency room diagnosed a "torn muscle" and pneumonia that supposedly accounted for the fever, Joy Cluff said.

Five days later the fever was still hanging on, and Tim couldn't move the right side of his body.

They took him to Helen DeVos Children's Hospital in Grand Rapids on the advice of the surgeon who had worked on Tim's knee.

"When they saw him they knew right away he had the infection," Joy Cluff said, and they hooked him up to an IV to give him the only antibiotic that could kill the MRSA.

Tests found that the infection had colonized in Tim's hip and had moved up to his shoulder. Fortunately, it had not reached any vital organs.

"If it goes to your heart, that's it," Joy Cluff said. "He was a couple days from being (dead)."

He spent nine days in the hospital under close observation, and was discharged attached to a machine that administered vancomycin, an antibiotic commonly used to treat MRSA. He had to take bleach baths and underwent months of physical therapy.

The Cluffs had some knowledge of MRSA before this crisis. One of Matt Cluff's high school classmates died from the infection in 2010.

But this time it hit close to home, and Joy Cluff began researching MRSA online. She found the MRSA Survivors Network and discovered that its founder, Jeanine Thomas, had almost died from an infection following ankle surgery in 2000. Thomas had successfully campaigned to require Illinois hospitals to screen for and report infections.

Joy realized that the public needed to be educated about this health menace.

"I knew right then that people are not aware of this type of bacteria, and that it can happen to a normal, healthy kid," Cluff said.

She is trying to enlist two powerful allies in her effort - state Sen. John Proos and Lakeland HealthCare CEO Dr. Loren Hamel.

"He knows this is a valid concern," Cluff said of her meeting with Hamel.

Hamel, contacted by The Herald-Palladium, said Lakeland is "very supportive" of reporting serious conditions of any kind to take better care of the community, but that the framework for such reporting has to be established at the state level.

When asked why the Lakeland ER did not detect Tim Cluff's MRSA infection, Hamel said all the diagnostic tests that should have been done were done, and did not reveal the infection.

He said that some illnesses do not show up in tests in the early stages.

Proos confirmed that he has met with Cluff and he is looking into the matter and learning what other states require.

Cluff said Proos is the right person to back her effort because his father was a physician and a chairman of the board of Lakeland Hospital. Proos also knew the classmate of her husband's who died from a MRSA infection, Cluff said.

In the meantime, Tim is trying to regain the strength and muscle he lost during his illness, so he can return to the wrestling mats.

The family was buoyed during their ordeal by the support of some of Tim's friends and other community members. During his illness, Tim was contacted by Ryan Churella, a top wrestler from the University of Michigan who encouraged him in his recovery and sent a poster signed by the school's wrestling team.

While Tim is now immune to MRSA, the effects linger and he is subject to fatigue and dehydration.

"Once you have MRSA, you're never the same," Joy Cluff said. "There's a physical wound, and there's an internal wound. You're always going to worry about what could happen next."

The MRSA Survivors Network reports that sufferers sometimes feel angry and depressed after they recover, and lose faith in the medical profession that failed to pinpoint their illness.

Joy Cluff is determined to help as many people as possible avoid the trauma that her family and many others have experienced.

"When I was in the hospital, not to get over-religious about it, but I prayed so hard for my kid's life and that if he came through this, I said I'll find my purpose," Cluff said.