My name is Emma Turnquist, and I am a practicing physician assistant within the Division of Gastroenterology at the University of Minnesota, and help to support our intestinal microbiota transplant (IMT) program for patients suffering from recurrent C difficile infections. I’m sharing my own experience with multiple recurrent C. difficile infections in effort to offer hope to others going through similar experiences, but also to help raise awareness in the both the public and medical communities on the management of C. difficile.
When my daughter was born the Spring of 2019, I was basking in some of the best days of my life, enjoying the advent of warmer weather as a newly minted family of four. I was healthy, happy, and enjoying my time away from the busy oncology practice that I had been working at. This all came to a quick halt after a stubborn case of mastitis, which landed me into the ED with a fever of 104 degrees and a rapidly spreading infection. I was switched to an antibiotic called clindamycin, which carries a significantly increased risk of C. difficile infection. Although I knew of this relationship, I(erroneously) figured my overall good health and healthy lifestyle would spare me of any C. difficile worries.
About a week after finishing the clindamycin, I was diagnosed with C. difficile after an abrupt onset of fevers, chills, abdominal discomfort, and relentless diarrhea. I was given a course of antibiotics, and my symptoms entirely resolved. I was hopeful, and thought, once again, that I’d be spared from recurrent infections. Like clockwork, one week later, it was back. And it kept coming back, and each time, it was worse. The idyllic postpartum leave that I had envisioned faded away, exchanged for a nightmarish roller coaster of recurrent C. difficile infections.
By the time that I was eligible for an IMT, I had been dealing with these recurrent C. difficile episodes for months. Though the physical toll that it had on me was undeniable, even worse was the mental impact. There were many days where my daughter, still an infant, spent more time in her bouncer in the bathroom than she did in my arms. I lost faith in my body and health. I constantly wondered what I had been doing wrong to put myself in this position. Already tenuous in the postpartum state, my mental health suffered with each recurrence, and for the first time in my life, I knew what it felt like to be truly depressed.
I vividly remember the day that I received the IMT; any hope that I had was blanketed by pessimism after having had so many recurrences. In the days that followed, I waited for the C. difficile to come back, but for the first time, it never did. In a matter of days, my life was given back to me. I was able to be an active parent in my children’s lives for the first time in many months. I could feel my body, and mind, healing. I’ll never forget the day that I was able to go for a run outside for the first time, after having spent much of the summer indoors (so as to be near a restroom); it was so euphoric that I broke down in tears. I am forever grateful to the University of Minnesota and Achieving Cures Together in making this lifesaving treatment available to me.
While I hope that my story offers a glimmer of hope to those who may be stuck in that recurrent cycle that I know all too well, one of my own goals as a provider is to make sure that patients don’t have to share any of the frustrations that I had in regards to the management of the infection itself. Even as a medical provider myself, one of the most frustrating facets of my own experience with C. difficile was the obstacles I faced in navigating the treatment. When I was first diagnosed, the provider insisted on an outdated antibiotic treatment, and it took considerable insistence and lot of back and forth phone calls before I was given appropriate treatment. With the second, the provider openly admitted that they didn’t know how to treat it, but at least appeased my request for an antibiotic called fidaxomicin. By the third recurrence, I had resorted to testing and treating myself. Had I not had such an intimate knowledge and access to the medical system, I am certain my course would have looked very different, and sadly, it often does for our patients.
I always joke that, through all of it, there was a silver lining to having C diff, which was leading me to my current position within our Gastroenterology division. I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to help care for patients affected by recurrent infections and guide them through their IMT process. As I grow into this role, I am hopeful to continue to work with Achieving Cures Together to raise awareness for antibiotic stewardship, education on the management on C. difficile, and access to IMT for those who are eligible.