Running Free from Infection

By Joy Vann

Crossing the finish line of a race is a rewarding experience for anyone. But when 9-year-old Kennedy Harris ran the final mile of the Rock ’n’ Roll Half Marathon in Virginia Beach over Labor Day weekend, it represented triumph over a menacing disease that had ravaged her leg and disrupted her life for more than three years.

Kennedy Harris

When Kennedy was in kindergarten, she began to complain of pain in her shin that woke her at night. Her parents, Crystal and Gray, were concerned but not overly so because minor bumps and bruises weren’t uncommon in such an active child. She practiced with a tumbling group three days a week and loved to swim and ride her bike.

After several episodes, her parents became more concerned. When they noticed that her shin was slightly swollen, they made an appointment at CHKD’s Orthopedics and Sports Medicine practice.

Crystal felt confident about taking Kennedy to CHKD. She had been a patient here as a teenager and had interned here while studying to be a respiratory therapist. She and her family would come to rely on that history and their faith when the Harrises received alarming news from an X-ray of Kennedy’s leg.

There was a dark spot on her bone. Her leg pain, they learned, was coming from either one of two possibilities: a bacterial infection or cancer of the bone. A bone marrow biopsy from her hip could tell which it would be. CHKD’s oncology specialists worked with the orthopedic specialists to solve the mystery.

One week later, the Harrises were relieved to learn that Kennedy did not have cancer, but she did have a rare and severe bone infection called chronic osteomyelitis.

That diagnosis took them to CHKD’s infectious disease clinic, where they learned that osteomyelitis can be caused by different types of bacteria. The most common bacterial cause is Staphylococcus aureus. In Kennedy’s case, however, it was caused by the much rarer Enterobacter cloacae.

Kennedy Harris
Kennedy Harris and her grandfather, Rod Curtis, ran the State Farm My 5K Challenge after she recovered from a rare and severe bone infection called chronic osteomyelitis.

Discovering what caused Kennedy’s pain was half of the battle. Healing her leg would require surgeries to clean (debride) the bone, a bone graft from her hip to repair the infected area and months of intravenous and oral antibiotic treatment.

“Kennedy loves sports, so it was hard for us to watch someone so active be sidelined,” Crystal said. “At points during treatment she was in a cast and had to use a walker. She never complained, never cried. We couldn’t have asked for her to be more patient.”

The fact that she had such an unusual organism – a bacterium normally found in the intestines – in her leg was an additional challenge. In his 17 years of practice, CHKD infectious disease specialist Randall Fisher had seen only one or two infections like the one Kennedy had.

“Bone infections are usually caused by Staph, but Kennedy’s was caused by a ‘gut bug,’” Dr. Fisher said. “It’s not clear how that happened. The bacterium must have gone from her intestines to her blood stream, and then possibly a sports injury allowed the bacterium to find its way into the bone.”

The Harrises appreciated Dr. Fisher’s calm and straightforward approach.

“Dr. Fisher gave us a lot of information. He drew pictures and explained how the disease works and how the body fights it off. He made it make sense for us,” Crystal said. “Kennedy just loves him. One time when we were in the emergency room and he came in to see her, you would have thought Santa Claus had come through the door.”

Dr. Fisher prescribed a powerful new drug called meropenem. Everyone hoped for the best. With each successive MRI, there was improvement. The new drug was working.

All the while, Kennedy was also seen by CHKD’s orthopedic surgeons who monitored her bone growth and, in particular, the crucial growth plates in her leg.

CHKD orthopedic surgeon Carl St. Remy periodically examined Kennedy’s MRI scans until this past August, when all signs of infection were gone.

Kennedy Harris
The Harrises: Crystal, Taylor, Gray and Kennedy

“Dr. St. Remy did a happy dance when he read those scans. We were all so excited,” Crystal said. “He gave her the go-ahead for gymnastics and to start with her school’s running club. Getting back to a routine was so important to Kennedy. She was ready to jump back in. She really wanted to run a race with her grandfather and decided to do the last mile of the Rock ’n’ Roll half marathon.”

Though there is a risk of recurrence of this very stubborn type of infection, Kennedy and her family are grateful for the healing that she’s experienced and especially for her return to normal activity.

With the miracle half-marathon mile behind her, Kennedy set her sights higher with the State Farm My 5K Challenge in November, which benefited CHKD. In that endeavor, Kennedy raised more than $1,500 for CHKD and finished the race to the cheers of family, friends, runners and spectators, all of whom had been moved by her inspiring and heartfelt words before the race.

“We just feel so blessed to get through all this,” Crystal said. “We are so grateful for CHKD. It’s such an amazing place, and everyone took such good care of our daughter.

“It’s been a long road for Kennedy. We tell her story because it’s so important to us that other kids know there’s hope. Even when things are tough and you have set-backs, things can turn around dramatically.”

Dr. St. Remy practices with CHKD Health System’s orthopedic and sports medicine group. Dr. Fisher practices with Children’s Specialty Group PLLC at CHKD.

This story was featured in the first quarter 2005 issue of KidStuff, a publication of Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters. Click to read more patients' stories.