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A rare infection caused this 6-year-old dancer to lose part of her leg

A little more than a week ago, 6-year-old Tessa Puma came down with a nasty flu. She experienced vomiting, fever, lethargy and a lessened appetite. Then she started hallucinating. Worried, her parents rushed her to the emergency room where doctors confirmed that she had the flu.

But then two days later, Tessa complained of pain in her leg. She couldn't even touch her skin without writhing in pain.

“She kept complaining how bad it hurt,” her dad, Matt Puma, 35, of Northfield, Ohio, said.

Courtesy of Stacey Kopec
6-year-old Tessa Puma is the youngest member on her competitive dance team. A flesh-eating bacteria caused her to lose part of her leg, but friends and family know she will dance again.

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He and his wife, Tina, knew it wasn't just the flu. They took her to a clinic, and from there, they were sent to Akron’s Children Hospital. That's when her leg and ankle became swollen and black lines appeared to spread from the swelling. And, she complained that her shoulder, arm and back hurt.

The terrifying sounding, but extremely rare, infection

Soon, doctors realized the family was right. Tessa was seriously ill; she had necrotizing fasciitis, what’s also called flesh-eating bacteria.

“It was kind of scary because we had seen her skin blister up,” said Puma.

Doctors suspect that Tessa developed necrotizing fasciitis because a month earlier she tested positive for group A streptococcus. She didn’t show any symptoms, but she took a 10-day course of antibiotics anyway. Group A strep causes a majority of cases of necrotizing fasciitis.

While group A strep is extremely common, necrotizing fasciitis is not, according to Dr. James Besunder, a pediatric critical care doctor at Akron Children’s Hospital, who has been treating Tessa. One in one million children develops necrotizing fasciitis.

“Necrotizing fasciitis is extremely, extremely rare,” he said.

Courtesy of Stacey Kopec
Tessa Puma practices dance day and night, always trying to get better.

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It is not contagious, no one can catch it from Tessa, he added.

Besunder suspects that her asymptomatic strep infection colonized her body. Having the flu probably made it easier for the bacteria to get into her blood stream.

With necrotizing fasciitis, the bacteria infects the layers of fascia under the skin, making it tough to see signs.

“You just can’t treat this condition with antibiotics because there is already going to be some involvement in the deep layers of the skin,” Besunder said.

That means surgeons needed to remove the dead and infected skin. Immediately, doctors performed surgery to take out the infected tissue in the leg while cutting slits in her calf to relieve some pressure. They also cleaned the area in her back, left shoulder and arm.

Because of the nature of the infection, surgeons need to recheck the area and remove infected tissue again. Two days after her first surgery doctors realized they had to amputate her leg.

“We definitely were upset and scared because she was so active,” Puma said. “They explained to us there was no saving it … That was her shot to help her survive.”

Dance is what she’s made to do

Stacey Kopec has been teaching Tessa dance since she was 2 years old. In Kopec’s 28 years of teaching, she’s rarely seen a dancer as naturally talented as Tessa. Because of her skill she was recruited to be the youngest child on the competitive dance team.

“When we first heard this, I said ‘I can’t believe of all the people this happened to Tessa,’” said the assistant director at Center Stage Dance Studio, in Northfield, Ohio. “Literally, dance is what this girl was made to do.”

Courtesy of the Puma family
Everyone who knows Tessa Puma, 6, knows dance is what she was "made to do."

Kopec, like Tessa’s parents, knows that Tessa’s love of dance means she’ll grace the stage again.

“She was always going to bring joy by dancing,” Kopec said. “She will definitely persevere.”

Yesterday, the Pumas told Tessa that she lost part of her leg.

“We told her that we had to remove part of her leg and said, ‘It is okay we are going to get you a new one,’” Puma said.

After she saw her amputated leg she simply said “scary.”

But Puma knows that his daughter has a passion that will help her heal and return to dance.

“Every time she was on stage she tells me and my wife she loves it. She was made to do it,” he told TODAY. “With her passion, we don’t think this will be a setback for her. They took her leg but they didn’t take her from us.”

While Tessa is stable she still has several surgeries ahead of her. If anyone wants to donate to help the family with ongoing medical expenses they can do so here.

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