Jane Hefferan was young, healthy and about to start her career as a lawyer when a tiny bite changed everything.
It was the summer of 2008. Hefferan had just graduated from law school at Vanderbilt University and was still living in Nashville. The Dearborn native was busy studying for the bar exam. Too busy to worry about the first sign something was wrong.
"My knee got red. It looked just like a bruise at first," said Hefferan. "It was all underneath the skin, and my knee was really swollen too. It kind of had a burning feeling."
She blamed the swelling on a previous stress fracture in her foot. But her physical therapist knew better.
"The physical therapist looked at it, and he's like 'You need to go to the emergency room,'" said Hefferan.
In the ER, doctors suspected a spider bite.
"I immediately said that no it wasn't a spider bite. It couldn't possibly be. I had no idea that a spider could do something like that," said Hefferan.
To her shock, Hefferan was admitted to the hospital. She was given antibiotics, but her leg kept getting worse.
"The initial surgery was just to cut out all of the necrotic or dead tissue that the spider had destroyed," said Hefferan. "It was on the side of my knee. They cut down basically to the lining of the bone."
She needed skin grafts to cover the wound, but they wouldn't heal.
"It kept opening up, and I was having a lot of bleeding. The graft wasn't taking. They ended up doing another graft which didn't take. And then they ended up doing a third graft, at which point they kept me in the hospital on complete bed rest."
The spider that bite Hefferan is called a brown recluse. Experts say including its legs, an adult is about the size of a quarter. They're most common in the south, but a few have been spotted in Michigan. They like to hide in dark places, outdoors or in.
Doctors believe Hefferan was bitten while she slept by a spider hiding in her bedding.
Just when Hefferan thought she was finally on the road to recovery, doctors noticed a fresh bite mark on her other leg.
"By the end of that afternoon, my entire leg had swelled up, it was all bruised again," said Hefferan.
This time, the damage was much worse.
"It was eating up so much of my leg, and so much of my tissue was gone," said Hefferan. "At that point there was like nothing left of my leg. It was just basically bone."
Hefferan was in the hospital for weeks. If the infection spread to her bone, doctors warned her, she might lose her leg. That didn't happen.
Hefferan eventually learned she was also suffering from an autoimmune disease called pyoderma gangrenosum, which explained why she wasn't healing properly from the skin grafts.
Now four years after the first spider bite, Hefferan has endured over 20 surgeries, needed over 50 units of blood and moved back to Michigan to be closer to her family.
She said her medical bills would total over a million dollars.
"I know from some of my extended hospital stays were 300, 400-thousand dollars."
Hefferan's student health insurance ran out a month after she was bitten. Vanderbilt University donated some of her care. But because her injuries from the spider were considered a "pre-existing condition," Hefferan was only recently able to qualify for government insurance. She is grateful to friends in Michigan who helped raise funds for her medical bills.
In spite of her challenges, Hefferan has persevered. She took the bar exam and passed, but the law will have to wait.
"It's completely changed the course of my life, and it's changed my career. I'm now going back to school and hope to start a nursing program next fall."
She hopes to become a patient advocate.
For now, Hefferan wants everyone to know a spider bite is nothing to take lightly.
"I made the mistake of ignoring it when it happened. You think, 'Oh, I'm out in the woods, I'll watch out for spiders or insects,' but it can happen within your own house," said Hefferan. "They can get anywhere that's a dark place, and I think you just have to be careful."
To learn more about the brown recluse spider and how to avoid spider bites, click here.
To find out more about treating spider bites, click here.
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