A lecture kept resonating in Joy Immak's head as she talked with her grandmother. A few days before Christmas, Immak's grandmother called to say her grandfather may be suffering from colitis once again.
Immak's gut was telling her that it was more serious than colitis. She suspected a nasty bacterial infection she had just learned about in professor Helen Wing's Biology 464 (Bacterial Pathogenesis) class.
The class focuses on how bacteria cause disease and how the body is built to defend pathogens. It also examines pathogens currently in the headlines, and Clostridium difficile (C. difficile) was one of those pathogens.
Immak, a junior microbiology major, is extremely close with her grandparents, who live in New Boston, a small town in east Texas. Their primary access to health care is a small clinic run by a registered nurse.
With Immak's prompting, her grandmother looked up C. difficile and realized its symptoms -- fever, lethargy, severe abdominal pain, loss of appetite, and frequent diarrhea -- were an exact match to the ailing grandfather. She wrote the name of the bacterium on a piece of paper and showed it to the clinic's nurse, asking if it could possibly be the culprit. Immak's grandmother said the nurse's eyes opened wide and he immediately called the nearest hospital, which is 20 miles away, and reserved a room.
Immak's grandfather was given an antibiotic that specifically targets the infection. He was in the hospital for nearly a week. Although not common, a C. difficile infection can lead to sepsis or a perforation in the intestines.
The bacterium only grows in environments without oxygen, such as the lower intestine, where it germinates and can divide very rapidly if the "good" bacteria has been eliminated by using antibiotics, Wing said.
"Most people are thought to carry C. difficile, but it only causes problems in individuals who are already weakened by a bacterial infection who have been taking antibiotics," said Wing. "Some antibiotics wipe out the problem bacteria but also wipe out the other bacteria that help to protect our bodies. What we end up with is Clostridium difficile in the right environment for growth with no bacterial competitors. Under these conditions it takes over and produces some really nasty toxins that damage our intestines. Those with irritable bowel disease and colitis are more susceptible."
Immak shies away from the suggestion that she helped save her grandfather's life. She attributes it to her grandmother and Wing, saying she was just the person in the middle.
"Joy is a very smart young woman, and it is neat to see how her education is already being put to use, changing her life and the lives of those around her," said Wing. "As an educator, you try and make a difference, and this is what you hope happens. It's very rewarding."
Immak is currently working in Wing's National Institutes of Health-funded lab, conducting research on a bacterial pathogen that causes dysentery. Immak's future plans also include research.
"This experience helped me make up my mind to pursue a doctoral degree in microbiology. It is something I love and hope to make a difference in other's lives," she said.