She speaks in a whisper, but Rylie Whitten wants the story of her battle with toxic shock syndrome heard far and wide.
“Be careful. Be aware,” she said, her voice soft and raspy. “Educate yourself.”
Rylie, a 15-year-old from Greenville, is surprising her parents with the speed of her recovery. Three weeks ago, she began a life-and-death battle against toxic shock syndrome.
On Tuesday, Jan. 26, she sat cross-legged on her bed at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital and chatted cheerfully about school, cheerleading, the dance team—and the way her illness has sparked attention worldwide. And when five Michigan State University cheerleaders visited, she beamed and asked them what it takes to make the team.
Miracles do happen, and this is it.
Rylie said she is willing to share her story because she wants to raise awareness about toxic shock syndrome, a life-threatening condition that can be triggered by a bacterial infection.
She wants others to be aware of the risks, “so people don’t have to go through what I did. …It’s important to help other people.”
Rylie moved out of the pediatric intensive care unit to a hospital room several days ago. Since then, she has progressed at “mind-boggling” speed, said her dad, Nathan Whitten.
“When she came here she could hardly touch her nose,” he said. “Now she’s on the phone, doing her nails, walking, doing stairs.”
Rylie, a sophomore at Greenville High School, recalled when her parents brought her to the emergency department at Spectrum Health United Hospital in Greenville on Jan. 5. She thought she had the flu.
“All I know is I didn’t feel good,” she said. “And then they flew me here, and then I really knew something really wasn’t good.”
By the time she arrived at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, she was scared. She remembers people telling her, “It’s OK.”
“And then—dreamland,” she said.
As her organs began to fail, her medical team put Rylie on an intensive form of life support—extracorporeal membrane oxygenation—known as ECMO. For eight days, the machine did the work of the lungs and heart, pumping blood and oxygenating it.
“She is definitely the sickest toxic shock syndrome patient I have ever taken care of,” said Dr. Surender Rajasekaran, MD, a pediatric intensive care physician.
Rylie’s mom, Jill Whitten, stayed by her side day and night.
For the Whittens and their 18-year-old son, Kyle, the experience was “like a big roller coaster,” Jill said. “It was very scary.”
For the first two weeks, the parents focused just on making it through the next moment, the next hour.
“This week, it really hit home for both of us just how serious it was—and how thankful we are that she is still here,” Nathan said.
Jill sat beside Rylie on the bed and wrapped her arms around her daughter.
“I said I’m not leaving here without her and I meant it. She’s my best friend.”
Rylie smiled and pulled in close.
“She’s got my back, and I’ve got hers,” she said.
As Rylie became stronger and more alert, her parents showed her the many news articles written about her. They told her about toxic shock syndrome, a condition that has been linked to tampon use.
Her illness was caused by a toxin-producing bacteria—staphylococcus aureus, said Daliya Khuon, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist. The syndrome can occur at any age, but younger women appear to be more at risk because they are less likely to have built up antibodies.
Initially, Rylie was expected to need intensive inpatient rehabilitation. But her parents said she is doing so well, she will likely need just outpatient therapy in Greenville. They hope her vocal cords will recover and Rylie will resume her usual cheerleader-strong voice.
But what matters most, is that she is still with them, her parents said.
“We are just so grateful and thankful that she’s still here,” Nathan said.
A cheerleader and musician, Rylie dreams of studying music at MSU—and joining the cheerleading team. Her story inspired MSU cheerleaders to visit her at the hospital.
In the library at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, they performed a dance to the Spartan fight song.
Rylie summed the experience up in one word: “Awesome!”
Rylie’s parents also told her about the outpouring of love, support and prayers from Greenville High School and the entire community. She blushed when asked about it.
“It helped,” she said. She shrugged and added: “It’s weird. I’m not that special.”
“We just want to tell everyone, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you,’” Jill said.
Michelle McClintock, a family friend, stopped by for a visit and marveled at how far Rylie has come. She saw Rylie’s recovery as an answer to many prayers.
“Miracles do happen, and this is it,” she said.