Lauren Wasser woke up in a hospital bed 80 pounds heavier than she was supposed to be, filled with fluids to try to flush the toxins from her body.
She struggled to move, and her feet felt as if they were being lit with a lighter again and again. But Wasser, a model, didn’t know how dire her situation was until she overheard a nurse discussing the surgery that would upend her life: Wasser, 24, would need a below-the-knee amputation on her right leg.
“I just lost it,” she said. “I screamed and cried. I’m an athlete. My legs were everything. I had no idea what my life would be like without them.”
Wasser was on her period and was using tampons in 2012 when she developed toxic shock syndrome. The rare but potentially fatal condition is typically caused by toxins from the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus, commonly known as staph.
“Toxic shock syndrome has been associated primarily with the use of superabsorbent tampons,” according to the Mayo Clinic, and it can progress rapidly. The Mayo Clinic advises: “Call your doctor immediately if you have signs or symptoms of toxic shock syndrome. This is especially important if you’ve recently used tampons or if you have a skin or wound infection.”
Wasser lost part of her right leg and the toes on her left foot in 2012, but her misery didn’t end there.
“I’m in excruciating pain every day,” she said.
In the coming months, Wasser expects her other leg to be amputated. She requires weekly treatments to manage the damage to her left foot.
Lately, she has been warning women about risks associated with tampons and has been calling for more transparency about feminine hygiene products.
She also has promoted legislation aiming to push the National Institutes of Health to help determine whether certain elements of feminine hygiene products are safe.
Deborah Kotz, a spokeswoman for the Food and Drug Administration, said the agency considers tampons that have been approved for marketing to be safe for women.
Kotz said all tampons, which are class II (or intermediate risk) devices, must receive clearance from the agency to be sold in the United States.
As part of the clearance process, she said, tampon manufacturers are urged to provide the FDA with “a list of component materials (chemicals, additives, finishing agents used) and a risk analysis concerning vaginal injury, tissue reactions and infections.
“Manufacturers are also advised to conduct microbiology testing to demonstrate that the tampon does not enhance the growth of certain bacteria or other organisms, including the bacteria known to cause toxic shock syndrome, and demonstrate that tampons meet their claimed absorbency level.”
In the coming months, Wasser said, “I’m inevitably going to have my other leg amputated.”
“I’m in excruciating pain every day,” she said. Once she has her left leg amputated, she thinks she will be able to run again — pain-free.