STOCKTON — One week Tatiana Chiprez Vargas was living the life of her dreams, honeymooning in Honolulu and returning home to Stockton to begin a new job at a nonprofit child-care center.
The next she was fighting for her life, her body ravaged by methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, better known as MRSA, a bacterium that can attack any part of the body and is more difficult to treat than other staph infections because it’s resistant to most antibiotics.
Four years later, Vargas is healthy, the mother of a 7-month-old baby girl and taking her story public to raise awareness about what can be a life-threatening illness.
“I feel that people need to know what MRSA is,” Vargas said. “I didn’t know what MRSA was and this happened to me. I would like for others to know it can happen to anyone. I survived this and that’s why I’m trying to raise awareness through the ‘I’m a resistance fighter campaign.’ ”
That effort was launched by a coalition of organizations and individuals to fight antimicrobial resistance, of which MRSA is one form.
A reported 700,000 people around the world die annually as a result of infections due to AMR and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate more than 2 million Americans are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year, a number expected to increase as AMR continues to rise globally.
The medical community has been aware of MRSA for years, said Paula Newman, a registered nurse and director of infection prevention at St. Joseph’s Medical Center, where Vargas was treated, but it’s becoming better known in the general population as incidents increase.
It used to be hospitals tested high-risk patients — those coming from a skilled nursing facility, those having surgery and those with multiple visits to the hospital — but anyone can be infected, Newman said.
“MRSA does hang out in the community,” Newman said. “We used to think it was only if you frequented a health care community, but you can get it from a gym, anywhere people go.”
Vargas, 30, has no idea where she contracted it, but wonders if it wasn’t the snorkeling equipment she rented in Hawaii while on her honeymoon with her husband, Alexandro Vargas, in June 2014.
On the Tuesday after she returned from her honeymoon, she started feeling flulike symptoms and asked to leave work early. She tried taking DayQuil, her go-to cold remedy, but she couldn't keep it down. Her symptoms got worse. Her chest started hurting. At 5 a.m. the next day, her mom took her to St. Joseph’s emergency room.
She was diagnosed with strep throat and given prescription medication, but couldn’t keep it down, either.
That night, as her temperature rose to 104 and she began coughing up blood, her family took her back to St. Joseph’s, and she was admitted.
“They didn’t know what I had,” Tatiana Vargas said. “The first week I was in the hospital I was in intensive care (because) my lungs were shutting down. They finally found out I did have MRSA the third day I was there.”
She was still coughing up blood and couldn’t talk, she said. She communicated by writing notes.
“At this point, even the doctors had spoken to my husband and were saying I was holding my own and that if I survive, it’s because of my strength,” Vargas said.
She and her husband, a mechanical engineer who earned his master’s degree at University of the Pacific, never talked about the severity of her condition.
“I could tell when he was talking to me something was really wrong,” she said. “My husband’s the type of person who likes to know exactly what’s going on. He’ll research it to the end. He’d be in tears when he would talk to me. I didn’t know exactly what MRSA was and how bad MRSA was and rates of surviving. We never talked about me not surviving. I always thought, ‘I’m going to be OK. I’m just really, really sick.’ ”
Doctors tried different antibiotics until they found one that worked.
“It can depend on a person’s body makeup,” Newman said. “Now, we have very specific machinery that tells us what antibiotics they’re susceptible to and resistant to. If we can pick something they’re susceptible to, we can get it quickly.”
That’s the progress that’s been made in treatment in the four years since Vargas was stricken.
Trial and error finally produced an effective antibiotic and Vargas began to recover.
Sent home after a week and a half, she returned to St. Joseph’s within a couple days because the oral medication wasn’t strong enough.
She was discharged for good after another week and it took a long time for the former Tokay High School and San Joaquin Delta College soccer player to regain her strength.
She was hospitalized in 2015 and again in 2016 for pneumonia because her lungs are still scarred from MRSA, although doctors told her they eventually will recover.
After consulting with doctors and given the OK, Vargas got pregnant in 2017. Within the first three or four months, she began coughing up blood. Doctors didn’t want to X-ray to find out the cause, but eventually her coughing stopped and she delivered her healthy baby, Samantha, on Jan. 14
She’s settled into being a new mom, but having fought off potentially fatal MRSA, Vargas is now a proud resistance fighter.
She shared her story on antimicrobialresistancefighters.org, where stories of other survivors are being posted.
Contact reporter Lori Gilbert at (209) 546-8284 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @lorigrecord.