A Michigan man who became a quadruple amputee after he developed an extremely rare form of strep throat is crediting his positive outlook and determination — and his wife — for returning to an active lifestyle.
Kevin Breen had to relearn how to walk, use utensils, get dressed, drive a car and other basic skills. Now, he’s skiing, wakeboarding and taking part in other sports he enjoyed before his sudden illness.
“I’ve always had a ton of energy and I’ve always been very independent, and to not be independent and be stuck in a wheelchair, which I was for a while, it drove me nuts,” Breen, 47, told the hosts of the 3rd hour TODAY on Friday.
“She took care of me, she had to do everything — I was like a baby,” Breen said of his wife Julie. “She gave me so much help and that’s part of why I wanted to be more independent, to not make her do so much stuff.”
Kevin was one of only two men in the world with a documented case of this form of strep throat, his wife noted.
The ordeal began in December 2016, when he developed a sore throat and stomach pain on the day after Christmas. Julie remembered being concerned because Kevin never took a day off work, but felt so ill that he decided to stay home.
He sought help at an urgent care center, where he initially tested negative for both the flu and strep throat. The couple returned home, but had to go to the emergency room the next morning when Kevin’s pain became unbearable.
"It was really terrifying," Julie recalled.
Because Breen’s stomach was distended, he was rushed to the operating room. When surgeons opened his abdomen, they found pus everywhere, surrounding all his organs, Dr. Elizabeth Steensma, an acute care surgeon at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids, told TODAY in 2017.
Surgeons flushed Breen’s abdomen to clear out all the bacteria, but even with the germs gone, he was slipping into septic shock — he was in danger of being killed by his own body’s immune response. His blood pressure plummeted and his organs started to shut down.
When tests ultimately came back positive for strep, doctors concluded the bacteria from his throat infection had somehow traveled into his abdomen.
While Steensma and her colleagues were able to save Breen’s life, they weren’t able to prevent permanent damage to his hands and feet. When a patient is in toxic shock, blood pressure plummets making it hard to get enough blood to the organs. The medications doctors use to treat the condition work by pulling blood from the extremities and shunting it to the brain and other organs necessary to keep the patient alive.
Breen’s hands and feet started turning black, meaning the tissue was dying, so doctors amputated his legs below the knee, his entire left hand and some of the fingers on his right hand. He spent months in grueling physical and occupational therapy.
“I remember telling him like, 'Kevin, you, you can cry,’” his wife recalled.
“My response was, ‘How I react to this is how our kids are going to perceive how, you know, we tackle challenges in life,’” Kevin said. “I got better and I could do more things and holy cow, I can walk.”
He uses prosthetic legs and a water-resistant robotic hand called the TASKA, which has 23 different grips and allows him do tasks like wash the dishes, type on a keyboard and even make the symbol for "rock on,” as he happily showed the TODAY anchors.
Julie said Kevin now requires very little help from her and can help take care of himself and the couple’s three children, who are 17, 7 and 5 years old.
The ordeal has brought the couple closer together.
“I became his full-time nurse when he first got home, and watching his unwavering determination to be independent again was so inspiring to both me and the kids,” Julie said.
“Julie was always there for me through my ups and downs so to be able to step back up to the plate for her, means everything to me,” Kevin noted.