By John Sleeper / Herald writer
ARLINGTON – Jake Webb’s aching body Sunday morning screamed at him to lie motionless.
Every square inch burned as though branded. His neck. His shoulders. His hips. His back. The night before, the senior tailback had run for 158 yards to lead the Arlington High School football team to a 21-7 victory over South Kitsap in its playoff opener. He’d missed two games, had practiced once in nearly three weeks. Even then he was held out of contact. Webb was hardly in game shape.
Thus, the searing morning-after pain.
“Just getting in and out of bed was a struggle,” Webb said. “It was hard to walk, even – getting to the couch and watching TV was hard.”
Yet, no matter how much postgame agony Webb was in, it beat the hellish torture he experienced a few weeks earlier.
In a hospital bed. With Toxic Shock Syndrome.
Long associated with use of super-absorbent tampons among women, TSS is an affliction that males also can contract. The illness is potentially fatal, one that occurs when poisonous substances produced by certain bacteria enter the bloodstream. The toxins cause a type of blood poisoning.
In Webb’s case, TSS formed through “cellulitis,” an inflammation of the connective tissue underlying the skin caused by a bacterial infection. Webb took a hit on his left shin against Marysville on Oct. 14, the Friday before his illness. It is possible, though not conclusive, that the blow caused a cut that established the infection that triggered TSS.
“In general, staph and strep (bacteria) cause skin infections through small or large breaks in the skin,” said Dr. Danielle Zerr, Webb’s attending physician at Children’s Regional Hospital and Medical Center in Seattle. “Football players, obviously, are at high risk for skin breaks. They’re also at risk for sharing bacteria with each other because of the physical nature of the game and also, potentially, through sharing equipment.”
In time, the leg swelled to the extent that Webb described it as “a tree trunk.” Later, doctors would debate whether to operate in order to remove the infection. They ultimately decided against surgery, opting to treat it with antibiotics.
It was Saturday, Oct. 15, when Webb first became ill. He felt feverish, with aches, nausea and chills, after a school dance. The symptoms continued Sunday and, believing it was some sort of flu, he stayed home from school that Monday.
“My mom stayed with me,” he said. “My chest was just killing me and she said, ‘OK, it’s time to go to the hospital.’ It felt like someone was just standing on my chest.”
They went to Cascade Valley Hospital, where Webb, in the emergency room, underwent 10 hours’ worth of tests, including blood tests, a spinal tap, a CAT scan and X-rays.
“They couldn’t put the pieces together,” said his mother, Ronda Webb. “There were a lot of things that were wrong.”
That Wednesday, doctors told her they simply didn’t know what her son had and recommended they go to Children’s Hospital. Webb’s fever had spiked at 104.7 degrees. His blood pressure dropped, his mother said, to 70 over 40. He was given Demerol for the intensifying pain. Yet overall, his condition became progressively worse.
“I was horrified,” Ronda Webb said. “It was the scariest thing. It’s that thing that’s a mother’s worst fear … The worst thing was in the emergency room at about 11 o’clock, when a nurse came in to check his vitals. She said another doctor was coming down from upstairs. I kind of just lost it, right then. I said, ‘What is wrong with him? We have all these doctors coming in and they’re just shaking their heads.’”
At Children’s, Webb was examined by various medical teams, including Infectious Diseases, Orthopedics and General Surgery. It wasn’t until well after Webb was discharged on Oct. 24 that Ronda Webb was told of the debate among doctors whether to admit him to the Critical Care Unit.
“They really didn’t ever say, ‘Your son could die,’” she said, “but I was so aware because there were people around us all the time. I knew there was some level of urgency.”
By Thursday, it was determined that he would be treated for TSS and given strong antibiotics. Soon, Webb rallied.
In the meantime, Ronda Webb stayed in her son’s room, day and night. Logistics dictated that his father, Vic Webb, at least make appearances at work in between visits to the hospital. Ronda stayed.
“I think moms go into a Mother Bear mode,” she said. “You just can’t let down. I knew I needed to not let down because I needed to help take care of him. I was worried that he was going to get so depressed and down and out. I was kind of a zombie. I didn’t sleep at night because I was so worried that he’d stop breathing. I think, like most mothers, you couldn’t have torn me out of that room.”
As sick as Jake Webb was, however, he admits to being only manageably frightened. An all-around athlete who hopes to play college football and once placed 18th in a national decathlon competition mere weeks after he first took up the sport, Webb’s concern was, perhaps, predictable.
“I was kind of scared, but not really,” he said. “I knew I was in good hands. The doctors were constantly all over me. I didn’t think anything horrible was going to happen. I was mostly worried about playing again.”
Perhaps he got the trait from his father, who said, “There was no doubt in my mind that he was going to get better. He’s a strong kid. Good things happen to good people.”
Jake Webb’s buddies and football coach couldn’t stay away. They paid visits. They brought flowers, candy and cards. He even managed to eat a bite of a burger someone brought from Dick’s Drive-In. They made him laugh and told him what was happening at school.
They kept at it even through the shock of Webb’s physical appearance. Webb is a leader among his teammates. He relaxes them with humor as often as he sets an example with great efforts at practice and games. To see him in a hospital bed was heartbreaking.
“The first week he was sick, I couldn’t explain in words how bad he got,” Arlington head football coach John Boitano said. “He looked like a 100-year-old man.”
“He was really pale,” Ronda Webb said. “His eyes were sunken. He had dark circles around his eyes. He had lost 10 or 12 pounds. For a while, he had a rash because toxic shock will give you something like a sunburn all over your body. It will make your skin peel. His hands and arms had these big chunks of skin flaking off. It was really gross. As he began to feel better, he’d entertain himself by peeling these big chunks of skin off.”
Friends also helped his mother through it. The Webbs received dozens of voice mails. Friends offered to cook and clean the house. One brought hot oatmeal from a favorite Arlington restaurant. Another brought a hot sub sandwich. All brought lasting hugs. All listened as Ronda let out cathartic vents.
Ronda Webb’s book club postponed a meeting she couldn’t attend because “they said all they would do was sit around and talk and cry about Jake.”
Once discharged, Jake Webb slowly acclimated himself to school, attending a few periods a day. He watched football practice. He slept. He mended.
But to know Jake Webb is to know that he can’t simply watch his teammates. He felt reasonably recovered and told that to Boitano. He ran when he could. He ran plays, without football gear and no hitting, at practice. He tried to whip his body back into reasonable condition. He slowly gained some weight back.
On Wednesday of last week, he suited up for practice, but Boitano held him out of contact. Still, Webb improved to the point where he persuaded his mother to obtain a release from his doctors to clear him to play. Repeated calls the day before the game against South Kitsap finally paid off.
While Jake Webb prepared this week for tonight’s playoff game against Kentwood, Ronda Webb continued her own emotional and physical recovery.
“I still feel like I want to sleep all the time,” she said. “The first couple of days he was home, I broke down every time he was going out of my sight. I thought, ‘I can’t let him out of my sight. What if something happens?’ I’m better now. But the football game on Saturday just about killed me.”
All in a month’s work for the Mother Bear.