Lucky to be alive, how an ex-RAAF worker battled melioidosis

Sandra Henderson was shocked to discover she had contracted a deadly bacteria which causes melioidosis. Picture: Supplied.
Sandra Henderson was shocked to discover she had contracted a deadly bacteria which causes melioidosis. Picture: Supplied.

Three days after giving birth to her first child Sandra Henderson was struck down with one of the Northern Territory's most lethal diseases.

In a rare set of circumstances, the then 29-year-old, who spent about 15 years at Tindal RAAF Base with her partner, had contracted the deadly dirt-borne disease, melioidosis.

She had no cuts to speak of, and bound to a wheelchair after her leg - riddled with bone cancer - was amputated, she had not recently left the house.

It was May 2000, her parents were visiting from far north Queensland and the newest addition to the family was the centre of attention.

"One day my leg started hurting. I left it for two days thinking I would get over it," she said.

"I was taking Panadol, Panadeine Forte, putting cold packs on it, nothing would work."

Concerned, her husband rushed her to the Katherine GP. Her immune system was running low following the birth and complications leaving her with dilated cardiomyopathy - a disease which weakens the heart.

"If it wasn't for Dr Brummitt's quick thinking I would be dead right now," she said.

"He told me to go to the hospital immediately where, luckily, there was a specialist. We thought the cancer might have returned."

Every year, at least 50 people are affected by melioidosis, of which 10 to 15 per cent of cases result in death.

Every year, at least 50 people are affected by melioidosis, of which 10 to 15 per cent of cases result in death.

She said the orthopedic surgeon took one look at her leg and said not to wait a second before leaving for the Royal Darwin Hospital.

"We left straight away, left my son with my parents. We got to the emergency room at around 7pm, and I was soon having a biopsy."

It took two worrying days before the biopsy came back with distressing news.

"To this day, I don't know how I got it. There were no cuts anywhere on my body. The doctors said the disease could have been lying dormant for years.

"They were baffled."

Every year, at least 50 people are affected by melioidosis - an infectious disease found in soil and water, particularly in the Northern Territory, northeast Thailand and Vietnam.

Sandra Henderson. Picture: Supplied.

Sandra Henderson. Picture: Supplied.

There are always a couple of cases which arise in the Katherine region, and so far this wet season, eight people have contracted the disease.

People most as risk of developing melioidosis are those who have existing conditions which impair the body's immune system.

For Mrs Henderson, years of complicated medical problems had left her unable to fight.

"I spent two weeks in hospital linked to an intravenous drip constantly feeding me antibiotics.

"I was eventually allowed to go home, but I had to stay linked to the drip for three more weeks. If the cannula needed changing I had to drive in to see the doctor.

"There were multiple trips to the infectious disease department in Darwin, and nine months of antibiotics every day."

Mrs Henderson said she was so unwell, she was unable to look after her new born. Her parents took him home to Queensland. It wasn't until months later she had gained the strength to board a plane to see him.

It was a year and a half before she felt fully recovered.

"I was so shocked when I found out it was melioidosis," she said.

"At that stage, I had only heard about it in passing comments. A woman had died just after the '98 flood. I really had no clue."

In reflection, it was the most frightening time of her life, she said.

The years after, still living in the Territory, didn't ease the fear.

"It is like cancer, you can get it more than once. It was always in the back of my mind. If I had a cut I would stay indoors, I always wore shoes and I never touched the ground."

Mrs Henderson now lives in Newcastle with her family and has plans to visit the Northern Territory this year.

Further information on melioidosis can be obtained on 8922 8044 or online here.

This story Three days after giving birth, a bacteria nearly killed her first appeared on Katherine Times.