'I feel lucky': how a life-threatening infection inspired a mission to fight superbugs

Anne Gulland
Greg McCallum is now studying how bacteria in the gut resist antibiotics
Greg McCallum is now studying how bacteria in the gut resist antibiotics

Contracting a near fatal infection during heart surgery as a teenager has inspired 22-year-old Greg McCallum to pursue a career fighting superbugs: he is now doing a PhD looking at how bacteria become resistant to antibiotics. 

Now, during Antibiotic Awareness Week Greg wants to share his story to raise awareness of drug-resistant infections and the dangers of overusing antibiotics

Greg, who is from Kettering, was born with aortic stenosis, which affects the blood flow in the heart. He always knew he would need surgery to replace one of his heart valves and a few months before his A levels doctors decided it was time to operate. 

The five-hour operation went smoothly but unbeknownst to Greg - and his surgeons - during the operation he contracted a life-threatening infection.

When he returned home after surgery he did not make the recovery he had hoped for and had frequent black-outs. 

“Before the surgery I read online about how amazing people felt afterwards and that just didn’t happen to me,” he says.

He went back to hospital in Oxford, where his operation took place, and after being monitored overnight the doctors realised his heart was stopping - an unusual but not completely out of the ordinary side-effect of cardiac surgery.

“At the time they didn’t really know what had caused it. They said it wasn’t an uncommon thing because they had been into the heart and cut it open and that can affect how the electrical waves pass through the heart tissue,” he says. 

Greg after surgery - Credit: Greg McCallum
Greg after surgery Credit: Greg McCallum

Doctors now believe that the infection was causing inflammation in his heart tissue which would have stopped it beating. 

Greg was fitted with a pacemaker and went back home. This time he felt much better and decided to start exercising.

“I had lost lots of muscle weight so I started doing some push ups. With one of the push ups I felt a pop. It didn’t hurt but a lump appeared where my sternum is,” he says.

The lump swelled to the size of a tangerine and stuck out so far Greg could rest his chin on it. 

He went back to hospital and this time his doctors were worried - they were unsure what was causing the swelling and feared it could be a build-up of blood which had leaked from his heart. 

“I had never been scared before surgery but I was with this one,” he says. “I didn’t know this at the time but they told my mum and dad to say their goodbyes to me before the surgery,” he says.

When they opened up his chest cavity doctors were astonished to find that it was not full of blood - but pus. His heart was stuck to his rib cage and it was a struggle for doctors to open it up to get to the heart without ripping it.

“My cardiologist said she had never seen anything like that before. She was really shocked at what she found. If it was the push up that made my lump appear then that push up saved my life,” he says.  

The bacteria he was infected with is called Cutibacterium acnes - it lives on the skin and, as the name suggests, it is the same bug that is responsible for spots. When Greg had his operation there had been very few cases of it being acquired through heart surgery and doctors found it exceptionally difficult to treat.  

He was given a whole cocktail of drugs until a combination that worked was found - and he was then told that because the bacteria can go into a dormant state he would have to take antibiotics for the rest of his life. 

As well as causing unpleasant side effects being on antibiotics long term can also lead to changes in bacteria so they become resistant to the very drugs that are meant to treat them.

After three years Greg told doctors he no longer wanted to take the pills and now goes back for a blood test every year. 

Jeremy Knox, policy lead for drug-resistant infections at the Wellcome, says that Greg’s experience shows the threat drug resistance poses to modern medicine. It wasn’t the complex surgery that almost killed him, but an infection.

“Procedures such as this should be routine and as technology advances they get safer and more routine. Antibiotics are a basic medicine that we rely on as a safety net but if they no longer work surgery become risky. We could go backwards rather than forwards,” he says. 

One side effect of Greg’s treatment is that he became more and more interested in drug-resistant infections.

“I realised that I was one of the lucky ones. I could have had an infection that was impossible to treat but I didn’t. I got really interested in it and was learning about how bacteria can pass resistance around to each other,” he says.

So after graduating with a degree in biomedical science from Birmingham University he applied for a PhD on drug-resistant infections in the gut at the university’s Institute of Microbiology and Infection.

He is now keen to raise awareness of drug-resistant infections and the dangers of overusing antibiotics.

“There’s a lack of awareness of what superbugs are - a lot of people think the person becomes resistant to the antibiotic not the bug. I feel passionate about spreading the word,” he says.

He feels 100 per cent well now and his near death experience has given him a new perspective on life.

“At school I wasn’t the most confident person but at uni I just wanted to go out and make friends and have fun. I feel lucky,” he says. 

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