Woman got fatal infection from cosmetic surgery, doctor said

  • Jamie Hilburn, who was a single mother at the time, had a tummy tuck and liposuction for her 28th birthday.
  • She developed increasing pain and redness, but the doctor told her to toughen up.
  • It was an MRSA infection, which can be fatal if left untreated. Medical expenses forced Hilburn to file for bankruptcy.

Jamie Hilburn wanted to treat herself. She was a young single mother working as a hairdresser in Edmond, Oklahoma, and her upcoming birthday – March 28, 2011 – was her golden one.

So Hilburn scheduled a scheduled tummy tuck and liposuction the day after she turned 28. “I wanted to do something for me,” she told Insider.

But instead of gaining confidence and losing inches, Hilburn contracted a life-threatening infection. She says her surgeon initially dismissed the signs as a normal part of recovery.

Now 39, Hilburn told Insider her story to raise awareness about infections after cosmetic surgery, and to encourage others to push for answers when something feels bad. “You know when something is wrong with your own body,” she said. “You just know.”

The only way Hilburn could sleep comfortably was on the arm of the couch

Hilburn said the liposuction and tummy tuck, which usually take two to four hours in total, went well.

But in the days that followed, her left side became increasingly tender to the touch, and her skin was so red it looked sunburned, Hilburn said. When she called her surgeon to report the symptoms, he told her they were part of recovery and to “tighten up,” Hilburn said.

According to Fairview Health Services, a system of hospitals and clinics, increased pain and redness after such procedures are potentially problematic and signs that you should call your doctor.

That night, Hilburn said her pain was so intense that she slept on her arm on the couch to put pressure on the wound. It was “the only way I could get comfort,” she said. “I remember it so vividly,” she added, “and I’m like, ‘This just isn’t right.’

The next day, Hilburn went to a local emergency room, where she said she was diagnosed with cellulitis, a common bacterial skin infection. Hilburn said she was given pain and sleeping pills and sent her on her way.

Antibiotics are the standard treatment for cellulitis, and without them the condition can become life-threatening. But Hilburn doesn’t recall being prescribed any, and her pharmacy records don’t go back far enough to clarify.

Hilburn learned she had an MRSA infection after another visit to the emergency room

Hilburn’s pain intensified over the next couple of days. That’s when her grandmother, who was looking after her while she recovered, stepped in.

“Listen, buddy,” Hilburn remembers her grandmother saying on the phone to the surgeon, “this is not ‘enhanced recovery.’ There is something wrong. She’s in a lot of pain.”

Hilburn said the surgeon arranged to have a colleague admit Hilburn to the emergency room of a major hospital the next day. She doesn’t remember much from the first days there. “I just remember them keeping me pretty sedated” while clinicians inserted an IV and drainage bag, she said.

Jamie Hilburn stands in a field with his son in 2018.

“My son is the reason I got through my experience,” said Jamie Hilburn, pictured in 2018.

Courtesy of Jamie Hilburn

When she was ready, Hilburn said an infectious disease specialist told her she had an MRSA infection. MRSA infections are caused by a type of staph bacteria that is resistant to the antibiotics used for typical staph infections.

Hilburn’s cellulitis was likely caused by MRSA, and was only getting worse, Dr. Joe Hadeed, chair of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons’ Public Education Committee, told Insider. (He was not involved in Hilburn’s care.)

People who have undergone invasive procedures are vulnerable to MRSA in the healthcare setting, especially if clinicians are not rigorous about washing their hands and cleaning tools between patients, the Mayo Clinic says.

Untreated, MRSA can spread to the blood and to organs such as the heart and lungs. In such cases, it can be fatal.

Hilburn said she didn’t know what MRSA was until she got it. While the risk of infection was mentioned in the paperwork before her surgery, she said she didn’t really absorb it. “Now I’ve read everything,” she said, “but then it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, come on, where do I sign?’

“It’s just something you never in a million years thought would happen over a stupid, futile procedure,” she added.

MRSA after cosmetic surgery is rare

Like any invasive procedure, cosmetic surgery comes with risks, including infection. About 1% to 3% of all surgery patients develop one, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.

But the incidence of cellulitis after plastic surgery is low, Hadeed said, and cases of MRSA post-cosmetic procedure are few and far between in the medical literature.

A 2008 case report describes a woman who developed a “deep wound infection” 14 days after a tummy tuck, liposuction and a procedure to strengthen the abdominal muscles. A week later, she developed an MRSA infection, requiring two surgeries to remove the infected skin and IV antibiotics.

Her wound did not close for three months, the case report authors note, and she was left with a “massive” and painful scar.

Hadeed told Insider patients with obesity and diabetes are among those most at risk for surgical site infections, so losing weight or controlling blood sugar before surgery can help reduce the risk.

It’s also important, he said, to look for a doctor who is board-certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery and the American Society of Plastic Surgeons to ensure that your doctor is “held to the strictest and highest standards regarding patient safety and outcomes.”

Hilburn filed for bankruptcy due to the costs

After clinicians found an antibiotic that fought Hilburn’s infection, she said she spent 10 days in the hospital and 43 days in home health care connected to IVs and drainage bags.

Hilburn said the plastic surgeon reimbursed her for the procedures, and also covered her home care.

Still, Hilburn had to pay an estimated $125,000 for the hospital treatment since her insurance company would not cover anything stemming from plastic surgery. As a result, she filed for bankruptcy.

Jamie Hilburn on a beach with his fiancee and daughter

Jamie Hilburn got engaged in the summer of 2022, and has a “bonus daughter” who is 7.

Courtesy of Jamie Hilburn

Now, 11 years later, Hilburn still has a lump of scar tissue on her right side where her drainage bag sat. But she has made peace with it, and says the experience taught her important lessons.

“It’s made me a lot more aware of things that can actually go wrong that you don’t even think about, and it could be you,” she said. “Especially when you’re careless and don’t really read the fine print.”

Hilburn also credits years of therapy for helping her sort through some of the feelings that may have led her to seek plastic surgery in the first place. She is now back at school for psychology.

“I wanted to have the operation for obvious reasons – for looks, for insecurity, but I just don’t care anymore,” she said. “It has made me love what I have without needing anything more.”

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