As a Palmerston North woman lay in hospital in a coma as an insidious infection took hold of her organs, her family were told to prepare for the worst.
Wendy Franicevic was rushed to City Hospital by her concerned partner, now husband, Jay Toogood after her health deteriorated.
It was December 19, 2020 and five days later, on Christmas Eve, Franicevic was diagnosed with Legionnaire’s disease.
“At this point, I was well and truly in a coma, paralyzed, [and] on kidney dialysis, because my kidneys had stopped working,” the 46-year-old told RNZ.
Her temperature was very high when the Legionnaire’s disease took hold until eventually she responded to antibiotics.
At Christmas that year, she spent 10 days in a coma, as Toogood and her parents were warned to expect the worst.
But she survived, although she was initially paralyzed when she woke up. She had to learn to control her body again and returned home after about a month to continue her rehabilitation.
She and Toogood also decided there was no time to waste and the couple tied the knot in an intimate ceremony at their home on February 27 last year.
“It gave me meaning when I came out of the hospital,” she said.
“I felt good that day and had worked so hard in physio to try to put myself in my shoes. I was determined to wear my white heels… It was the best day of my life. He came out of something so horrible and so dark.”
For longtime gardener Franicevic, trouble began in early December 2020 when she opened a bag of potting soil while planting vegetables.
She wore her usual leather gardening gloves and sunglasses, but no mask, breathing in the bacteria that attacked her from the inside over the next two weeks before going to hospital.
“I had a dry cough. I was tired, I had a bad headache, pain in my chest and stomach. That’s all I remember. I don’t remember the six days before to go to the hospital.”
A University of Otago study published in 2019 found that there were 238 cases of Legionnaires’ disease in New Zealand identified between May 2015 and May 2016.
More than half are thought to have caught it while gardening, like Franicevic. It can also be caught by inhaling it from contaminated water sources.
Franicevic has made a surprising recovery from just over a year ago, but the former leader’s life is dramatically different and she cannot yet be sure of the long-term effects of the illness.
She takes more than 20 pills a day, although it has gone down, gained weight, lost her hair and is regularly tired.
Often stuck at home, she relishes contact with her friends or family, but is often forced to cancel catch-ups because she does not feel well.
Unable to work, she is also ineligible for ACC.
Franicevic said she was speaking out to encourage others to properly protect themselves from the disease and its debilitating effects. In particular, she said, gardeners should read warning labels on potting soil and wear masks, gloves and eye protection when opening it.
“It’s an unpleasant, persistent illness. You don’t recover. You just get complications. That first year, outside of the hospital, I learned how frustrating, futile and upsetting the whole process can be. “, she said.
“Everything about our way of life has changed, absolutely everything, physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. Everything has changed.
“The body that I learned to rely on, that I knew could get me through a hellish day in the kitchen or a whole day of moving, or tough stuff, can’t sustain me. I can’t rely on my body.”