Cocktail waitress, 35, who was told by doctor she had mastitis but actually had sepsis and almost died has now had her final breast reconstruction surgery
- Nikki Belza thought she pulled a muscle when she developed tenderness in 2016
- She collapsed but doctors dismissed her pain as ‘a plastic surgery problem’
- Her fever became dangerously high and tests revealed she was in septic shock
- Faced with a 50% risk of dying, she had her entire left breast removed
- Had surgery on Wednesday to make her breasts symmetrical again
A woman was forced to have her fourth chest reconstruction operation in just two years after she lost her left breast to sepsis.
Nikki Belza, 35, who lives in Las Vegas, woke up with tenderness in her breast in 2016, which she initially dismissed as just a pulled muscle.
The cocktail waitress was later rushed to hospital after she collapsed at work – but doctors said it was likely mastitis from her breast implant and sent her home with painkillers.
But when Mrs Belza’s fever rose to more than 40°C (104°F), blood tests revealed she was in septic shock as a result of a Strep infection in her breast pocket that spread into her blood.
Faced with a 50 per cent risk of dying, Mrs Belza was forced to have her entire left breast removed and spent four months with a lopsided chest.
She underwent her fourth, and hopefully last, reconstruction surgery on December 5 to repair nerve damage, remove scar tissue and finally make her breasts symmetrical again.
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Nikki Belza was forced to have four chest reconstructions after she lost her left breast to sepsis. Pictured left before the ordeal, the cocktail waitress woke with tenderness in her chest in 2016. She is seen right after what will hopefully be her last surgery on December 5
Faced with a 50 per cent chance of dying, Mrs Belza was forced to have her entire left breast removed after doctors revealed her sepsis arose from a Step infection in her breast pocked that spread to her blood. She then lived with just one breast for four months (pictured)
Mrs Belza is pictured 12 days after one of her surgeries to rebuild her breast earlier this year
When Mrs Belza, who is originally from New York, woke with tenderness in her chest she thought she had just slept awkwardly or pulled a muscle while lifting something at the bar.
Unconcerned, she set off for work only for her health to deteriorate throughout the day.
‘My minor pain started to escalate,’ she said. ‘I still wasn’t too worried because I only felt like I’d sprained a muscle.
‘Within an hour of my shift starting, it quickly became unbearable. My husband CJ works at the same club and started later than me, so he was going to bring me an anti-inflammatory pill. But my pain skyrocketed for what seemed like no reason.
‘I basically collapsed in the corner in pain because I could no longer stand.’
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Mr Belza phoned his wife’s cosmetic surgeon who told them to go to hospital immediately.
‘When we arrived at hospital, I was still in my revealing cocktail waitress uniform of a corset and fishnet stockings because I was in too much pain to change clothing,’ Mrs Belza said.
‘The initial visit wasn’t helpful because they gave me painkillers and told me it seemed like a plastic surgery problem which they wrote off as inflammation and sent me home. That move almost took my life.
‘With sepsis being a medical emergency, every second counts. But there was no sepsis protocol, so they didn’t assume I had an infection despite my husband and I trying to refuse painkillers and suggesting I might need antibiotics instead.
‘After being sent home my health quickly declined. My fever was rising above 40 degrees, I had unbearable pain like I was going to die, pale and sweaty skin, extreme thirst, I was shivering and confused.’
Mrs Belza is pictured left recovering after her fourth reconstructive surgery in just two years. Pictured right after overcoming sepsis, Mrs Belza struggled to live with just one breast in Las Vegas, which is ‘is all about glam and appearance’, and lost her confidence
Mrs Belza had surgery to enhance her breasts, which are pictured before. She insists her implants did not cause her sepsis. Nevertheless, her left implant still had to be removed
Mrs Belza is pictured left and right in hospital in 2016. She spent five days in intensive care after having emergency surgery to remove her left breast. Surgeons told her taking out the implant would be the quickest way of stemming her sepsis, which was at risk of spreading
At 4am, a panicked Mr Belza called his wife’s cosmetic surgeon once again, who was appalled to discover she had been discharged without any tests.
The medic was flying back to Las Vegas at the time and told Mrs Belza to meet him in his office.
The surgeon then carried out blood tests, which revealed Mrs Belza’s white blood cell count was a staggering 44,000 – 11 times higher than the normal 4,000.
‘After the blood tests, he said my white blood cell results were astronomical and I needed to get to hospital straight away,’ Mrs Belza said.
‘I was in septic shock, so the infection was taking over my body and killing me.
‘My surgeon and an infectious disease specialist gave me two choices: have surgery to remove the breast or wait it out on an IV with antibiotics.
‘With my symptoms, there was a higher than 50 per cent chance that I would have died so surgery was my only option.
‘We all decided that removing one implant with all the breast tissue would be the safest and quickest option, and it would keep the infection from infecting my other side as well.
She added: ‘My infection wasn’t from having breast implants, my sepsis originated from a strep infection which was in my entire breast pocket and spread into my blood.
‘Losing my breast may have saved me because sepsis is known to spread so rampantly in your blood. It could have infected nearby organs like my heart and my lungs.’
While living without a breast, Mrs Belza wore a prosthetic (seen left) to boost her confidence. Pictured right after the most recent surgery, she hopes her chest will be back to its former size
She now lives with post-sepsis syndrome, which has turned her hair grey (pictured)
WHAT IS SEPSIS?
Sepsis occurs when the body reacts to an infection by attacking its own organs and tissues.
Some 44,000 people die from sepsis every year in the UK. Worldwide, someone dies from the condition every 3.5 seconds.
Sepsis has similar symptoms to flu, gastroenteritis and a chest infection.
- Slurred speech or confusion
- Extreme shivering or muscle pain
- Passing no urine in a day
- Severe breathlessness
- It feels like you are dying
- Skin mottled or discoloured
Symptoms in children are:
- Fast breathing
- Fits or convulsions
- Mottled, bluish or pale skin
- Rashes that do not fade when pressed
- Feeling abnormally cold
Under fives may be vomiting repeatedly, not feeding or not urinating for 12 hours.
Anyone can develop sepsis but it is most common in people who have recently had surgery, have a urinary catheter or have stayed in hospital for a long time.
Other at-risk people include those with weak immune systems, chemotherapy patients, pregnant women, the elderly and the very young.
Treatment varies depending on the site of the infection but involves antibiotics, IV fluids and oxygen, if necessary.
Source: UK Sepsis Trust and NHS Choices
After the surgery, Mrs Belza spent five days in intensive care and four months with just one breast.
‘Sepsis has physically impacted me in the sense that I spent four months with one breast, which is very hard in the city I live in,’ she said. ‘Vegas is all about glam and appearance. I was very weak and had to stop working for a long time.’
But, she added: ‘Surviving sepsis made me mentally stronger than I ever thought I was.’
‘I still have many lasting effects from the whole experience, including post-sepsis syndrome, which made my hair turn almost completely grey, shakiness, a low immune system and an inability to regulate temperature. I’m always freezing or uncomfortably hot.’
Mrs Belza is speaking out to raise awareness of sepsis, which often does not cause symptoms until severe.
‘I wish I’d have had earlier symptoms to avoid what I went through, but hopefully my story will help people become aware that although my situation was unusual, sepsis is very common, and it can arise from any infection,’ she said.
‘My message would be to always be aware of your body and health. If something hurts, then pay attention because your body is telling you something.’
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