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LUMBERTON – James Burnett doesn’t remember much about the week he nearly died. But the 44-year-old Lumberton man knows one thing: If his sister hadn’t insisted he visit an emergency room, he’d be a goner.

Even after a week in intensive care, doctors weren’t sure his body could handle the triple threat posed by an antibiotic-resistant infection, sepsis and pneumonia.

“I was, like, being attacked from the front and the back,” Burnett said. “I guess I was really meant to be here.”

Trouble started in July, after he had surgery at a Pennsylvania hospital to implant a neurostimulator in his back to counteract pain stemming from an earlier surgery. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, attached to the device, leading to two lengthy rounds of antibiotics that failed to knock out the infection even after the device was removed.

Though the number of infections acquired in hospitals has declined dramatically since 2008, more work is needed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Using a grant from the CDC, the New Jersey Hospital Association is working to combat the problem by finding and teaching best practices related to antibiotic prescribing habits, as well as helping facilities reduce MRSA and other infections, according to Shannon Davila, director of the association’s Institute for Quality and Patient Safety.

Transmission does occur in the hospital, Davila said.

“That’s why there is such an effort on making sure people are wearing gloves (and) washing their hands,” Davila explained. “That’s why we test high-risk patients for MRSA in New Jersey hospitals, so that we can identify if patients are carriers, so we can put those precautions in place to really prevent the transmission of that bacteria to another patient. It’s definitely a multi-pronged approach.”

“It’s a constant struggle … but the infection prevention community nationally and in New Jersey is very strong,” Davila added.

In late October, Burnett woke up in the middle of the night with a high fever and difficulty breathing, warning signs that an infection has turned deadly.

After his sister urged him to seek care, he drove himself to a local emergency room and collapsed at the reception desk. He stopped breathing twice; his heart quit a few times. After a week, doctors at the hospital told his mother, Juanita Rice, they weren’t sure if he would survive, and asked if she would consider hospice care. She opted to have him transferred to a specialty care hospital nearby instead.

By the time he was transferred to Lourdes Specialty Hospital of Southern New Jersey (since renamed Acuity Specialty Hospital of Southern New Jersey) on Nov. 5, Burnett needed a ventilator to help him breathe and was at a serious risk of dying, explained Lisa Cimino, the Willingboro hospital’s regional director of provider relations.

“He was in multiple system failure – he was critically ill when he arrived,” Cimino said. He also was heavily sedated to keep him from ripping out his breathing tube a second time.

As with all new patients arriving at the hospital, Burnett was tested to determine what bacteria he was fighting, and which antibiotics were best to control it.

“I was so impressed with the care that they gave him,” Rice said. “He wanted to come out of it. He fought.”

Within a week, Burnett was weaned from the ventilator and sedatives. The day he took his first steps down the hall, he was surrounded by cheering staff, who called him a walking miracle. By Dec. 6, he was home, beating doctors’ predictions by five months.

“It was amazing,” said Burnett, who hopes to return to work someday. “I felt like I needed to push myself harder because I saw how dedicated they were to make me better.”

“I’m not sure where I would be right now if it wasn’t for them,” added Burnett. But he knows what would have happened if he hadn’t gone to the hospital.

“Your body knows when something’s wrong,” Burnett said. “Listen to your body, not your head. If I had listened to my head, I would have laid back down.”

Kim Mulford: (856) 486-2448; kmulford@gannettnj.com