Steffanie Strathdee knew her husband, Tom Patterson, was running out of time.
For three months, she’d watched helplessly as he fought a losing battle for his life — much of it in a coma and connected to a ventilator — while teams of specialists tried unsuccessfully to kill the antibiotic-resistant bacteria devouring his body.
“Honey, I know that you’ve been fighting really hard and you’re really tired,” a weary Steffanie whispered in his ear one afternoon in February 2016 in his La Jolla, Calif., hospital room. “If you want to give up, it’s okay. But if you want to fight, I need you to squeeze my hand and I’ll do everything I can to save your life.”
As she felt Tom’s bony fingers begin tightly grasping her hand, “I thought, ‘Yes!’,” says Steffanie — who, like her husband, is a renowned AIDS epidemiologist at the University of California, San Diego. “And then I thought, ‘Oh s—. What am I gonna do? Who am I to think I’m better than the best of our colleagues?’”
But Stefanie, now 52, was right to be optimistic: The medical detective work she embarked on saved the life of her husband, now 72. What’s more, it pioneered a treatment experts believe might help combat the growing crisis of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, known as superbugs.
The story of her efforts and how she persuaded researchers to create a cocktail of bacteria-gobbling viruses harvested from sewage, known as phages, to kill one of the most lethal, powerful superbugs is told in the couple’s new memoir, The Perfect Predator.
“It was scary,” Steffanie tells PEOPLE in an interview in this week’s magazine. “We were flying by the seat of our pants. But we all knew this was our last chance to save Tom.”
The nightmare for the globe-hopping couple began in November 2015 on a ten-day vacation to Egypt, spent touring the pyramids and floating down the Nile River. Two days before returning to their home in San Diego, Tom suddenly began vomiting violently from what they both assumed was food poisoning.
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By the time he was eventually taken to a hospital in Frankfurt, Germany, he was drifting in and out of consciousness from septic shock. Surgeons rushed to remove a gallstone blocking his bile duct — only to discover that a massive pseudocyst had formed around his pancreas.
“It is the worst news we could have,” a doctor soon informed Steffanie. “The pseudocyst is infected with the worst bacteria on the planet — Acinetobacter baumannii.”
What made this particular Egyptian strain of the bacteria so terrifying is that none of the 18 antibiotics in use could kill it, including colistin, known as a “last-resort” antibiotic.
Nine days later, Tom had been flown by private jet to the University of California’s Thornton Hospital in La Jolla. Instead of getting better, the bacteria was slowly eating him alive. “He was basically dying a little bit more each day,” says Steffanie.
On that desperate night in mid-February 2016 when she stumbled upon an online research paper on phages — considered promising in the 20s and 30s but largely forgotten once penicillin came along — her husband’s heart, lungs and kidneys had begun to shut down.
Ry Young, a researcher at Texas A&M University she had emailed for help, was so touched by her request that he offered to turn his lab “into a command center” to help Tom and went to work convincing other experts in the obscure field to pitch in.
Within three weeks, the group had identified several phages, made from viruses found in raw sewage, that could penetrate the cell wall of the bacteria devouring Tom’s body — and kill it.
After the FDA gave Tom’s doctors the green light, he became first person to have phages injected into his body to fight an antibiotic-resistant superbug.
Three days after his first treatment, he regained consciousness — although months passed before he cleared what remained of the superbug from his body. “I just started crying,” Steffanie says. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Three years after his miraculous recovery, Tom’s battered body is a hundred pounds lighter than it was before his illness and still on the mend.
Publicity from the case has helped jumpstart global research on phage therapy and Steffanie, who is currently helping to oversee two clinical trials on phages, says the procedure has already prevented dozens of deaths in U.S.
“The World Health Organization and the CDC say antimicrobial resistance is a more urgent threat than climate change,” says Stephanie. “We need to look at alternatives to antibiotics. Some of them are right under our noses — or, as I like to say, under our butts!”
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