“Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” 1988 rock ballad by metal band Poison
For Gennifer Lendahl-Gonzales, it took a seemingly simple rose thorn to pierce her health and shatter her calm. While rare, her experience is a cautionary tale for anyone working outdoors.
In late February, with her in-laws coming for a visit, the 45-year-old stepped outside her Antelope home to quickly pull a few weeds beneath the five rose bushes lining her front walk. One thorn pierced the top of her hand, puncturing the skin near the knuckle on her left index finger.
“It was nothing. I’d pruned those roses for nine years and never had a problem,” said Lendahl-Gonzales, sitting recently in her living room.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
But that forgettable scratch quickly turned into something far more insidious. The next morning, the mother of two teenage boys woke with a swollen hand and intense pain. She iced it and started googling “spider bites,” assuming she’d been bitten while pulling weeds. A day later, with the pain feeling “like I had broken bones,” her husband took her to the emergency room.
Doctors diagnosed cellulitis, a relatively common bacterial infection, and prescribed two oral antibiotics, seven pills a day. She went back to her human resources job at California State University, Sacramento, but the swelling didn’t subside and the pain only increased. “It felt like someone had taken a sledgehammer and crushed my hand,” she recalled recently. On her fourth visit in a week to the ER, it was apparent the antibiotics weren’t working and that she might be at risk for sepsis.
She went into surgery, where Kaiser doctors cleaned out an infection that had spread to her bone and put her on a 20-milliliter-a-day regimen of antibiotics, delivered by syringe via a port in her arm. For the last six weeks, it’s been a long road to recovery.
From florists to foresters, such cases of plant-caused infections “are unusual but not unheard of,” said Dr. William Schaffner, infectious disease specialist at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “Those thorns have a reputation for a reason.”
Schaffner said he’s got a “reasonably thick” file of reported cases involving farmers, gardeners and others who “acquired infections during the course of their work with growing plants.” He said any vegetative matter – decaying wood, a stack of hay, a prickly thorn – can act as “a natural needle” that essentially injects infectious bacterial matter under the skin, setting up a local or systemic infection. Medical literature, he said, is full of incidents of infections acquired during “seemingly innocent and natural activities,” such as pruning rose bushes.
Among rose experts, Lendahl-Gonzales’ case is considered extremely rare. “I was dumbfounded when I heard of her story,” said Baldo Villegas, a retired state environmental researcher and consulting rosarian who speaks across the country. With about 3,000 rose bushes at his Orangevale home, Villegas said he gets scratched “all the time,” but takes precautions and always keeps his tetanus shots up to date.
Villegas, who speaks to American Rose Society groups nationwide on rose-pruning safety, said he knows of only one other person – the former president of a Sacramento-area rose society – who got pricked by a rose thorn in the early 1980s and wound up with a serious blood infection.
Villegas has standard advice for anyone working outdoors with prickly plants: Get vaccinated with a tetanus shot. Always wear gloves, preferably made of goatskin, which he said are more resistant to punctures. Wear heavy pants, like Levi’s. Never wear shorts. Dress in layers. Wear glasses to protect your eyes. And if you do get pricked by a rose thorn, berry bush or anything else that punctures your skin, always wash with soap and water and cover with a Band-Aid, he said.
That advice is echoed by Vanderbilt University’s Schaffner. “The lesson for the average person: Enjoy yourself, take care, wear gloves. If you get stuck (by a thorn), clean it up and wash it off.” And, he noted, everyone – adults and children – should be immunized against tetanus and get a booster shot every 10 years.
These types of “stranger-than-usual” incidents, Schaffner said, are reminders to stay alert when working outdoors, but not to avoid it. “Absolutely, we don’t want to discourage gardening.”
Gardening is far from Lendahl-Gonzales’ mind these days. For the last month, she’s had an IV port for antibiotics in one arm and an injured hand that’s still numb and requires physical therapy. Bills for her ER visits alone total about $250,000, she said. For the first time in six weeks, the mother of two returned to her CSUS job last week, but she still can’t type at the computer, do laundry or open a jar. And she still fears inadvertently getting exposed to bacteria, whether from her dogs, out at her horse’s stable or even just taking a neighborhood walk. “I’m paranoid that I’ll get scraped again,” she said.
As for roses, they’ve been forever banished from the couple’s suburban home. While she was in the hospital, her husband Ricky “took a shovel” to the yellow, white and pink rose bushes, she said. “He killed them.”
“I love roses but my husband said we’ll never have roses in this house again. Never.” For the couple’s eighth wedding anniversary in March, Ricky brought a bouquet of flowers to his wife’s hospital bed. They were tulips.
Editor’s note: This story has been changed to reflect that Gennifer Lendahl-Gonzales received an injury to her left hand.