Gennifer Lendahl-Gonzales was pulling a few weeds beneath the roses in her front yard in advance of a visit from her parents on a Friday evening in February, when a her hand grazed a rose bush and a thorn jabbed the top of her left hand near the knuckle.
“I did not even think twice about it,” the 45-year-old Antelope resident said. She’d been stuck by rose thorns many times in the nine years she tended the five bushes along the front of her house. She went on about her day, but late in the night, after she went to sleep, her hand began to ache, troubling her dreams.
“I thought maybe I laid on it wrong, or it was positioned funny,” she said. In the morning, her hand was swollen and throbbing with pain. She thought it might have been a spider bite, and she posted a picture on social media.
A veterinarian friend messaged her to tell her it wasn’t a spider bite, but she still did not make the connection to the tiny spot on her knuckle left by the thorn. The pain was so severe, it felt like a bone had broken, which didn’t reconcile with such a minor injury.
“The pain felt like a sledge hammer – like nothing I ever felt,” she said. Finally she went to a local hospital for emergency care, where doctors diagnosed a common case of cellulitis and prescribed two antibiotics. But when the pain and swelling hadn’t gone down in four days, she went back again – several times. But the pain and swelling continued.
Finally, an MRI revealed the extent of the infection, and doctors operated to remove the bacteria. Doctors took a sample of the bacteria and sent it for analysis to develop an effective antibiotic. In the meantime, they kept her in the hospital in case she developed sepsis. When the results came back, doctors installed a "pick line" – a tube leading from a port in her right arm to just above her heart.
In all, Lendahl-Gonzales spent five days in the hospital and was out of work for five weeks, quickly exhausting her allotted vacation and sick time.
Infections from rose thorns scratches are not widespread, but do occur from time to time. Various bacteria and fungal infections are associated with roses, and the thorns are good for injecting them into the hands of gardeners – which is why it’s a really good idea to wear gloves.
The reason Lendahl-Gonzales’s infection became so difficult to treat was the location of the injury. Although it seemed insignificant, the sharp tip of the thorn injected bacteria straight into her knuckle bone. Her doctor said hers was a "one in a million case." Ordinarily, an infection like hers should have been treatable by the course of antibiotics she was initially prescribed.
However, infections like these can be more dangerous to those with conditions that compromise the body’s ability to stave off infection. A British man suffering from diabetes lost a leg below the knee in 2012 due to a severe infection after he stepped on a rose thorn, according to a BBC news story.
Dr. Dean Blumberg, a pediatric infectious disease expert at the U.C. Davis Medical Center, said it is more common for rose gardeners to be infected with a fungal infection called sporotrichosis. But any kind of cut or scratch can allow entry of various bacteria, such as staph or Staphylococcus, which lives on our skin.
With deep inoculation, as in the case of the thorn that penetrated Lendahl-Gonzales’s knuckle, the bacteria can be pushed in and become sealed off, so it can’t easily be flushed away by washing.
The main thing is to take infections seriously and seek medical care, Blumberg said. If people aren’t sure, and want to save themselves a trip to the emergency department or urgent care clinic, they should at least call or email their primary care doctors for advice on whether they need to come in.
Even if it’s a case of overreaction to a minor injury, “They can learn from that too. It’s better to err on the side of seeking early medical attention,” Blumberg said.
Lendahl-Gonzales said her doctors told her it was lucky she caught the infection early.
In an interview at her Antelope home this week, Lendahl-Gonzales took a light-hearted tone, joking about the terrifying ordeal – which, she admitted, left her fearful of small injuries.
Her husband took the rose bushes out, replacing them with hibiscus and other flowering shrubs. She’s wary of paper cuts and handling sharp objects.
Eventually, her fears will subside, but she isn’t planning on replacing the rose bushes any time soon, and she intends to wear protective gloves while gardening in the future.
She frowned at her scarred and still-swollen hand.
“I’ll never make it as a hand model – those dreams are now over,” she joked.