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Walking miracle

Doctors say New London woman likely contracted near-fatal disease from her dog

Doctors told her she’s a walking miracle. They tell her they can’t believe she lived through what she lived through… and her illness was all because of a dog, a dog she loved with all her heart, but had to give up.

Renee Hanson holds a photo of her and her dog, Bailey. Doctors believe Renee contracted a bacteria from the dog that nearly killed her. Contributed photo

Renee Hanson holds a photo of her and her dog, Bailey. Doctors believe Renee contracted a bacteria from the dog that nearly killed her. Contributed photo

Doctors say her dog likely caused the rare disease she ended up with, but Renee Hanson, of New London, doesn’t believe her precious dog is the culprit. Hanson said animals of any kind can carry the disease and feels she may have gotten it from horses or cattle that she had been around.

That rare disease laid her down and out and almost took her life. If it had not been for very close friends she just may not be here today. She realized that she would never have called an ambulance or asked anyone for help. But a couple of her closest friends could see how ill she was and stepped in to help.

Renee said she didn’t feel good for two months.

“I was just tired all the time and had to lie down and take a nap and just didn’t feel right,” she said. “My friends all told me ‘go to the doctor, go to the doctor,’ but I didn’t listen to them. I don’t run to the doctor with a hangnail.”

At Christmas time she had what she described as a “terrible rash” on her back. The first thought was that she had ringworm. She ended up having problems breathing so she went to the doctor. She was cold, so cold her teeth would chatter. “It was terrible,” she said. “Then I went to the doctor, and they thought I had pneumonia because I couldn’t breathe.”

Renee was immediately admitted to Rice Memorial Hospital in Willmar. She spent two days and at the end of the two days, was sent home with oxygen.

Renee then picked her car up from the clinic and went home to wait for the oxygen to be delivered, which it was a short time later. She was planning to go to her good friend. Kathy Cloakey’s for supper but was getting weaker and weaker.

“Six hours later I was in an ambulance. They had to carry me up my driveway.”

This was in February, she said, and Kathy had sent Melissa Hansen to Renee’s house because she didn’t want her to be alone. As soon as Melissa got to Renee’s house Melissa called her husband Tim, and Tim and Sig Holm came right over. “One look at her and he was on the phone calling 911,” said Ginger Hansen, another friend. “They carried her up the driveway on a gurney because it was icy, and the ambulance didn’t dare drive down.” They put her in the ambulance, and Tim rode in the back with her.

“They put me in that ambulance, and I don’t remember a thing after that. They took me back to Rice, and they admitted me on a Friday night. I was transferred to St. Cloud Monday. Because there was a snowstorm they had to hold me back, and they had to call my brother in Tennessee because he’s my power of attorney, to get permission to put me on life support to get me to St. Cloud.”

Renee was alert Saturday and Sunday but doesn’t remember them. “They said I sat up in a chair and ate a hamburger, and I don’t remember anything,” said Renee. Kathy said they were saying everything was fine, and then at 3 a.m. the next day, she got a call from Renee’s brother, Roger, saying they were transporting her to St. Cloud because they couldn’t keep the fluid off her lungs, and they needed to send her to a lung specialist, which they didn’t have in Willmar.

“They put her on life support and started for St. Cloud. They got five miles down the road and had to turn around because of the snowstorm.” Kathy stayed with Renee until they were able to transport her to St. Cloud.

“And I remember nothing,” said Renee. “I didn’t know where I was. My lungs kept filling up, and they ended up tapping my lungs in St. Cloud. I laid on life support for two weeks. I never really wanted to have that done, but I’m glad they did it because I’m alive.” But, she said, they didn’t know what was wrong with her and then it was all these tests, but she didn’t know anything that was going on. They surgically inserted a feeding tube, which she had for four months.

Then the infectious disease doctor, Dr. Math, who was working with the Mayo Clinic, asked Renee if she had a dog. She said, “Yes.” She was told she was going to have to get rid of her dog. Renee couldn’t believe it. She didn’t want to get rid of her ‘little Bailey.’ It was heartbreaking. Her friend, Kathy, took the dog and kept her for two years. They finally had put her down in March.

“The bacterial infection is caused by a dog licking or a dog bite,” said Renee. “Bailey was not a licker, and she never bit me so I have no idea what happened.” Kathy said they were told most animals have this bacteria in their saliva, and they have no way of testing to see who has it and who doesn’t. It’s just something that is generally in their system, and with most people, it doesn’t bother anything.

The name of the bacteria is called camnocytophaga canimorus.

Renee has Crohn’s disease so has a low immune system, and they figure that’s why this happened. Her immune system couldn’t fight it off. Dr. Math did numerous tests before he figured out what it was. The bacteria worked its way up to her heart.

“It ate through my heart mitral valve so I had to have heart surgery.” She was told this was very rare and most people don’t survive. “They told me I’m a walking miracle, and they couldn’t believe I lived through it.” She told them she was “tough.”

It took two weeks to diagnose what was wrong with Renee. By the time she got off life support they knew what it was. They had eight different antibiotics, but penicillin was the best. And she was on a penicillin pump from the time they figured it out to when she was in the nursing home.

After the surgery, she spent a month at the University of Minnesota and then did her rehab/exercise at Glen Oaks in New London for a month.

On March 26, three days after her birthday, they replaced her mitral valve. “I’ll never forget it. Four months later in July I had to have a pacemaker put in because I have atrial fibrillation caused by the mitral valve being replaced.”

“They also tapped my lungs and took fluid off. I had every test you can possibly imagine. Most of them they came right to my room with all the equipment – it was too hard to get me around. I had picc lines in both shoulders to give me medicine. I had bags and bags hanging from me.” Her friend Kathy said they jokingly called her the bag lady because of that.

And Kathy started calling her goldilocks because every time she went to see her she’d be in a different room. “I said ‘What are you doing, checking out the beds – this one is too soft, this one is just right’ – every time they moved her it was to another room.”

It’s very rare, Renee said, and most people don’t survive. “I heard one lady had both legs amputated. I would rather have the heart surgery than have both legs amputated.”

Renee said the disease is so rare that doctors were going to do an article about her in a medical book.

Today, Renee said, she cries a lot. “I can’t work; my back has been bad for years cleaning carpets in houses and offices. Now I can hardly do anything anymore. I’ve put my house up for sale; I can’t do the yardwork.”

The neighbors have been so good, she said, they’ve done the yard work, snow removal, and more. They’ve been very helpful.

For now Renee is living with her friend, Kathy, until she sells her house. “My house was perfect, but I can’t do the work, and I can’t afford to hire it done. My neighbors have done it for nothing.” Renee said she is so appreciative of what her neighbors and friends have done for her throughout this ordeal.

Renee’s life has changed drastically since she was hospitalized, and it has been depressing at times. “I live a day at a time,” she said in a tearful voice. “I pray my health stays, and I wish I could go to work. I was a workaholic.”

Dr. Math told Renee her recovery was going to take her twice as long as anybody else because of her low immune system. “He was exactly right.”

Renee said she’s a survivor; she’s lived through many ordeals and will live through this one.

“You have to think positive, it’s not easy but….and they say it all goes back to the dog. I can’t be around any animals, they all have this bacteria.” Renee vaguely remembered Dr. Math saying ‘It’s worse than we thought.’

“That’s when I found out I had to have heart surgery – I didn’t feel good for two months and you go to the hospital and all the stuff that happened, the snow storm….it was one thing after another, and how I ever survived it I don’t know – I guess it wasn’t my time,” she said.

Renee said she’ll never forget her dog, a miniature poodle and lhasa opso, that she had for seven years. “She was so cute. She was my little lovebug.”

Renee said doctors told her 50 percent of animals have it. Renee still believes she did not get this from her dog.

“My life has certainly changed,” she said, then smiled, and added, “but I have not lost my love for Elvis, and I’ve never loved anything as much as I loved my dog.”

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