The little boy was having diarrhea nine times a day. There were blisters on his hands and feet, and when it came to sleeping, it was only for 20 to 40 minutes at a stretch.
Two-year-old Jayden Drummond's health problems have afflicted him for most of his short life, and it all appears to be due to a superbug called Clostridium difficile, or c.diff.
C.diff is a bacteria found throughout the environment. It is often diagnosed in hospitals and health care facilities where people are especially vulnerable to infection, but it's become more common and difficult to treat in recent years. Symptoms range from diarrhea to life-threatening inflammation of the colon, according to findings from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
The bacteria has been known about for decades, but now it has entered the mainstream and has medical experts concerned.
The infection rate has picked up in the past decade, according to Dr. Sahil Khanna, a gastroenterologist and c.diff specialist at the Mayo Clinic. Three to five people every day turn up positive for c.diff at the clinic. "It's becoming an epidemic, both inside and outside the hospital," he said.
About 14,000 deaths each year are attributed to c.diff. The Mayo Clinic estimates that the United States spends about $1 billion per year to treat c.diff infections.
To say that the bacteria is hard to kill would be an understatement. C.diff spreads mainly from person to person on hands, but it can live on a surface for months, maybe years. Researchers tested the bug on a surface for nine months and it still survived. Bleach does kill the bacteria, but it often spreads before the most ardent housekeeper can disinfect a surface.
"Spores can remain viable for months to years on surfaces," said Cliff McDonald, an expert on c.diff with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Jayden finally seemed to be free of the infection a few months ago, but he's become ill again. Doctors say it's likely the lasting effects from having a severe bacterial infection for so long.
His mother, Rebecca Drummond, also contracted c.diff while caring for her little boy. She has since recovered and remains the toddler's strongest advocate and primary caregiver. She lost her job, but she now considers that somewhat of a blessing in disguise, partly because Jayden has required so many doctor's appointments.
"This is all working for the best, but it's a financial struggle," she said.
A fund to assist Jayden's family (which includes his father James and half-sister Jenna) has been established at Wells Fargo Bank under the name Jayden's Cause.
The Drummonds live in an ultra-clean Bettendorf home that Rebecca has scrubbed so many times she's lost count.
"I've disinfected my home from head to toe. I can't tell you how many times. I washed my hands until they were raw and bleeding," she said.
Ironically, the need for cleanliness led to Rebecca's infection: She was putting a fork in a dishwasher when she punctured a finger. She used antibiotics to treat that, but she subsequently contracted c.diff. Treatment of the wound continued for three months.
Disease is easily spread
The bacteria is passed in feces. It can take a simple touch for contamination to occur. It has been known to exist on shopping cart handles, bed rails, toilets, telephones, remote control devices and much more.
But people don't necessarily get sick when they come in contact with the bacteria. It can, though, be triggered by antibiotic use, according to the Mayo Clinic. The antibodies destroy some of the helpful, protective bacteria in the gut, and that's what allows c.diff to grow out of control.
Typically, patients will have mild abdominal cramping and watery diarrhea for two days or longer. Severe cases include fever, severe pain and cramping, blood in the stool and frequent, watery bowel movements.
Very severe symptoms call for emergency care, and c.diff can cause serious complications such as severe dehydration, shock or even a ruptured colon.
For treatment, a new drug has been OK'd in just the past two years. It is called fidaxomicin and it's the first drug approved to fight the infection in more than 20 years, McDonald of the CDC said.
Jayden's life as a patient
After being treated locally for various illnesses commonly found in young children — strep throat, hand/foot and mouth disease, and respiratory infections — Jayden's primary physician referred him to a specialist. The local specialist started the toddler on probiotics and scheduled some tests at University Hospitals & Clinics in Iowa City.
"At this point, he'd been sick for like five months. It was very rough on him when he wasn't on antibiotics," Rebecca said. "He was sick, anemic and would fall down. He had diarrhea all day long. He would hardly eat or drink, so we used PediaSure to keep some form of nutrition in his little body."
In those days, Rebecca was still working full-time as a marketing/events coordinator for a nonprofit organization. She'd care for Jayden during the day and sometimes work at her job during the night. She also worked overtime and weekends to stay on task.
"I would sleep like 15 minutes at a time, here and there, for about seven months. I was very worried, trying to figure out what to do," she said.
Finally, an answer
Once Jayden's treatment shifted to Iowa City, Rebecca said the situation changed, eventually for the better. He'd been off antibiotics for three weeks and contracted secondary infections. But now he was tapered off antibiotics over a period of time, which his mother described as "very expensive, stressful and crazy."
During that period, he saw a blood specialist for the anemia as well as immunity specialists. Doctors concluded that most of his problems were related to the c.diff bacteria and suggested a fecal transplant.
Jayden was now getting sick every time he was exposed to the outside world. Rebecca was forced to take a 12-week medical leave from her job and settled in for the long haul of dealing with the fecal transplant procedure and recovery.
"When we were home, I kept him isolated. We'd strip down, wash our clothes, the house, just everything," she said.
Finding a donor for the transplant was problematic. Rebecca was ruled out when the screening showed that she, too, had the c.diff infection. But Jayden's father was a good candidate. The procedure was done in November, and the Drummonds found immediate success.
"The second we got home, Jayden said he felt better, he was hungry and his stomach didn't hurt anymore," Rebecca said.
Still not out of the woods
It took about three months for Jayden's system to regain balance, and his struggle is still not over. The infection saga resulted in the development of severe colitis, an inflammation of the colon that takes time to heal. He stayed in isolation for months.
The Drummonds took Jayden out one day in January, just to see how he would do, and he came down with influenza.
He is eating mostly organic foods, and "I'm still cleaning my house big-time," Rebecca said.
Rebecca, 35, is free of the infection herself now. At one point in their ordeal, she had to deal with the discovery of a tumor in her breast, but that turned out to be benign.
"That was a relief," she said.