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How MRSA Almost Ate My Elbow

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Two Tampa Bay Buccaneers players are putting training camp on hold because they’ve been diagnosed with a bacterial infection known as MRSA.

I know how it feels, because MRSA tried to eat my elbow in 2007.

MRSA stands for Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. Staph infections are nasty things that develop quickly and kill more than 10,000 people each year, according to federal data. MRSA comes in two general strains, one typically caught in the community and another, often tougher, strain typically caught in hospitals or other medical facilities.

MRSA infections are more common in places where people live or work close together, like an NFL locker room or a college dorm.

I don't know where I caught my infection, but I'm guessing it was my house because I woke up with it one morning. It started with what looked like a bug bite or ingrown hair on the bottom of my forearm, near my elbow. The bump wasn’t remarkable except that it was really, really painful to the touch.

I ignored it for a day.

The bump was even more tender the next afternoon so I called my now father-in-law, a dentist, and asked his advice. He thought it sounded like a spider bite and called in a prescription for penicillin. I drove to the store, picked up the meds and popped a pill in the parking lot.

And almost immediately my arm blew up to twice its normal size. The wound started pulsing. I had fever and chills. That’s because MRSA is resistant to penicillin.

When I got to the urgent care center the doctor suspected right away what I had. He took a swab and sent it out to a lab for confirmation – which came back as MRSA the next day. He checked medical references to find which antibiotics other doctors said were currently effective treating MRSA, and then gave me some.

The MRSA wound was about the size of a quarter and looked like it had bored through my arm by the time I returned for a checkup the next morning. It was oozing lots of gray-green goo – the remnants as the bacteria ate their way through my soft tissue.

I spent the next two weeks heading to the doctor every couple of days to have the wound flushed, repacked with gauze and wrapped as the antibiotics and my immune system slowly fought the infection.

The wound eventually healed. The doctor said taking the penicillin caused my arm to swell, but probably made no difference in my recovery. But if I had delayed treatment another day or two the infection could have spread to my blood and become much more dangerous.

The bacteria will live in my nose for the rest of my life. It’s likely I’ll develop another MRSA infection at some point, the doctor said.

I haven’t yet. But I’ve still got the scar near my elbow from the first go-round and I’ll never assume it’s just a bug bite again.

--John O'Connor is a reporter for StateImpact Florida. He can be reached by e-mail at