SIOUX CITY -- Feelings of euphoria and relief washed over Rebecca Thoms when she set foot on Briar Cliff University's campus on crutches the first day of the fall semester.
The junior majoring in English, secondary education and special education underwent two surgeries over the summer to treat a mysterious staph infection in her left knee that could've resulted in amputation, or worse.
"My mentality changed when I came back. It wasn't, 'I have to go to school to get this.' It was, 'I get this privilege to go to school, be a better role model for my kids and provide a better future for them,'" the single mom of three explained while seated at a long table in her adolescent literature classroom.
Thoms' battle with staph began not long after the spring semester ended. The 28-year-old had recently moved to a new home in Sioux City. She was working full-time at a daycare and raising her kids, Julieanne, 5, Nicholas, 4, and Brooklyn, 3, when the excruciating pain surfaced.
"It felt like someone took a butcher knife to right behind my knee and was trying to rip my kneecap out of my knee," said Thoms, who thought she had likely injured her knee moving into her house.
Memorial Day weekend, Thoms sought treatment at a local emergency room. A physician diagnosed her with a pulled muscle and sent her home with a knee brace, crutches and a prescription for pain pills. For three weeks, an undiagnosed staph infection continued to grow and fester in Thoms' knee.
Staph infections are caused by staphylococcus bacteria, germs commonly found on the skin or in the mouth or nose of healthy individuals. These germs usually don't cause problems, but if the bacteria enters the body through a cut or break in the skin, a life-threatening infection could take hold.
"I was in so much pain that I would sleep, because there was almost no other way to bear the pain," Thoms said.
Tired of the pain, stress and chaos that her condition was causing, Thoms followed up with her primary care physician, who ordered X-rays and an MRI and referred Thoms to an orthopedic surgeon, who on June 15, a Friday, discovered the staph infection after attempting to drain fluid from her knee.
"It was not fluid. It was nasty, disgusting staph infection," said Thoms, who was told to wait at the office for her lab results. "They have no idea how I got it or where it came from."
About an hour later, the surgeon returned to give Thoms the bad news: She would need emergency surgery that night.
"He said if I would've waited until Saturday and went to ER, that they probably would've been calling to amputate my leg, and if I would've waited until Monday, I probably would've been so septic that I wouldn't have been able to get out of bed. My kids would've found me in my bed," said Thoms, who underwent a procedure to clean out the infection and prevent it from spreading. She was hospitalized for four days.
Recovery after the procedure was slow. Thoms, who couldn't bend her knee before or after surgery, had her blood drawn twice a week for six weeks, received medication through a PICC line and attended physical therapy three times a week. She couldn't lift anything over 10 pounds and struggled with everyday tasks -- using the restroom, grocery shopping and doing laundry.
"The house that I moved to has 17 cement steps from where I park to the front door. There's 14 steps from the main level of the house to do laundry," said Thoms, who got around using crutches and a cane. "Those two were my biggest obstacles."
Thoms piled dirty laundry into a garbage bag, which she tossed down the steps. She said it took her half an hour to reach the bag at the bottom. When the drying cycle was finished, she made the trek back up the steps backwards. Thoms said her children, who stayed with her mother in Omaha for a week after her surgery, were "incredible helpers" throughout the ordeal.
"They would pick out their clothes and set them out the night before. They wanted to help with dishes and they wanted to help with laundry," she said. "You could see the compassion from my own kids with what I was dealing with."
Thoms had a second surgery on July 27 to ensure the staph infection was gone. She spent two more days in the hospital.
"I argued with (the surgeon) about my second surgery. I said, 'I start school in three weeks and that's important to me. If you do this surgery, I don't know if I'll be able to walk to go back to school,'" Thoms recalled. "I said, 'I'm not going to school in a wheelchair.'"
The surgeon assured her that she would be walking around campus in the fall if she was willing to work hard in physical therapy. Thoms was motivated by her desire to return to campus and play with her kids again at the park.
"My adviser here on campus said, 'As long as you can get here to the first day of class, I promise we will accommodate you and get you anything that you need to make sure that you are successful,'" Thoms said. "I knew that I had the community here at Briar Cliff that was going to back me. They came through tenfold."
Thoms recently completed seven months of physical therapy. She still struggles with muscle loss in her leg and tightness in her knee.
"The biggest thing that came out of it was the personal growth and personal development. I'm not surviving the semester to just get through," she said. "I see it more as a privilege, an opportunity. How many classes can I get because I want to learn more? How much can I handle because I want to get as much out of this experience as I can?"