In October 2012, model Lauren Wasser woke with what seemed like the flu — and nothing has been the same since.
“I believe I was in the ICU. I was 200 pounds,” she says. “My right leg was really bad. They both were on fire. I mean I can’t even describe to you the pain.”
Her organs were failing. Her body was bloated. Doctors told her mother to prepare for the worst—and make final arrangements for Wasser.
Then an infectious disease specialist diagnosed her with toxic shock syndrome, a rare complication caused by toxins produced by some bacterial infections, including Staphylococcus aureus and A streptococcus bacteria. TSS is most commonly linked to use of superabsorbent tampons.
TSS became well known in the 1980s after several women died from it. The FDA began regulating tampons and now each box comes with a warning, urging women not to wear tampons for more than eight hours at a time and to select the proper absorbency. A tampon that is too absorbent for the flow or made with certain materials, such as viscose rayon with or without cotton, causes a higher risk for TSS.
The doctors could provide proper treatment for Wasser, but they couldn’t save her leg. Doctors amputated it below the knee.
“I literally was laying there, thinking my life was over. That I would never be accepted again, I could never model again. No one would look at me the same,” she says.
“Toxic shock syndrome is an exceedingly rare event. For the general public, tampon use is safe when they have their period,” says Dr. Amy Stoddard, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.
Wasser has sworn off using tampons and is suing Kotex, the maker of the tampon she used. Kotex has not commented on the case. Wasser also founded an organization to educate people about TSS. And she’s modeling — something she never imagined she could do.
"I'm more beautiful than I've ever been because I've experienced so many things, and I can relate to so many different people," she said. "And you know, it's just made me a better person.”