Editor's note: See what community members are doing to support Tessa and her family.
NORTHFIELD CENTER -- Six-year-old Tessa Puma loves to dance, but a rare infection has caused the Northfield Center kindergartner to lose the lower half of her left leg.
"She loves dancing, being on stage, she always tells us 'Dad, I was meant to do this' she lights up, she just loves being up there," said her father Matt Puma. "She had two competitions this year and they had just added a leg lift for her in her last competiton. So it was nice she got to do that little move."
Tessa, who attends Northfield Elementary School, was diagnosed with strep throat in March, but despite feeling better for a couple of days was taken to the hospital by her parents Matt and Tina Puma, who say hospital staff told them Tessa had the flu.
"All of a sudden she came down with a fever and she started hallucinating, talking crazy, so we took her to Akron Children's Hospital," Matt said. "They said she has the flu and a fever and that's normal, so they sent us home."
Two days later, Matt said his wife told him Tessa had begun complaining of pain in her leg and arm and Tina took her to the Cleveland Clinic, where she tested positive for the flu and doctors told the Pumas that Tessa had some kind of infection. The Clinic sent her back to Children's Hospital, where Matt said his daughter continued to worsen and was in extreme pain.
"Her skin hurt; you couldn't touch it with a sheet, just sort of how gout reacts," Matt said.
He said the infection is so rare there is no MRI, X-ray, ultrasound or other test, and the only way doctors confirmed the infection was to cut her skin open and physically examine the infected tissue. Tessa's leg began to swell up at the same time she began complaining about pain in her shoulder, further alerting her parents.
"I went and got the doctor and said, 'Alright enough, you are treating her with Motrin and Tylenol, she's freaking out in pain, and it's not regular aching/soreness," Matt said, adding he knows what regular flu pain is like. "It's not screaming in pain when a sheet touches your skin ... It's my child I know something is wrong with her."
Doctors gave Tessa stronger medication, but noticed black streaks on her legs and began to fear the little girl had a blood clot. Matt said they sedated Tessa for tests and during the procedure she stopped breathing and doctors lost her pulse.
"They had to call a Code Blue, and all these doctors came rushing in there, probably like 25 people in the room flushing out her lines, whatever they put in her to bring her back," Matt said.
Surgeons explained then that an emergency operation was needed to relieve the swelling, which had restricted blood flow to her foot. When her circulation was restored, it was too late to save Tessa's leg, as the tissue was dead and the infection had spread up the side of her body and into her shoulder. Matt said it took three surgeries to get the infection under control. One of the operations involved amputating her leg below the knee. Another involved the removal of muscle tissue in her shoulder.
Tessa has multiple surgeries ahead of her for skin grafting and Matt said they expect she will be in the hospital for a minimum of two months, and it will be at least three months before doctors can even fit her for a prosthetic leg.
"She has a very long road ahead," Matt said. "Now we see improvement in her and we know we're not going to lose her, OK fine, she is going to lose her leg, but it's not going to be the end."
"She's strong, she keeps fighting every day ... she's a strong-willed girl so it's not going to set her back. It's just going to be another part of her story, another part of Tessa."
Her big brother Tyler said he would want people to know in addition to Tessa being a good dancer, that she is very kind.
As of press time, Tessa was awake and just beginning to talk to her family, but had not asked many questions. Over the weekend she was able to visit with some friends.
Community members are rallying for the Pumas by planning several fundraising events and her school is planning activities to support Tessa as well as her brother Tyler, a fourth-grade student at Northfield.
Briana Barker: 330-541-9432