Doctors search for cause of young woman's severe illness

Doctors search for cause of young woman's severe illness »Play Video
Tabitha Schulke in an undated photo before she became ill (left) and a recent photo while undergoing treatment in the hospital. (Photos provided to KATU News by her family)

PORTLAND, Ore. - Doctors in Portland are trying to find the reason a Monmouth woman's life is in danger after she was recently admitted to the hospital with a mysterious illness.

In the last two weeks, Tabitha Schulke, 18, has lost her lower legs to amputation and was clinging to life. She first became ill on Thanksgiving, her aunt said. She is currently in critical condition.

Photos of Schulke, swollen, immobilized, discolored and breathing with a ventilator in a hospital bed, show a woman unrecognizable from the vibrant, attractive teenager seen in pictures taken before the onset of the illness.

Doctors said they think Schulke developed gangrene as a result of toxic shock caused by a staph infection, but what brought on the illness is still a mystery. The National Institute of Health said patients with toxic shock have a 50 percent chance of survival.

Lab tests will hopefully help determine what caused Schulke's illness.

Meanwhile, family members are devastated over what has happened to a young woman who was a Sunday school teacher and intent on helping others as a missionary.

"She's beautiful on the outside, but she's even more beautiful on the inside," Schulke's aunt, Katie Zimmerman, told KATU News.

Zimmerman said flu-like symptoms led to gangrene on Schulke's feet. "They looked like they were out in the snow, they were just getting black," Zimmerman said.

The gangrene spread, forcing surgeons to amputate Schulke's legs near each knee.

"When she came here, she was very close to death and she's come very far, so that makes us very hopeful for the future," Dr. Eric Chang with Legacy Emanuel Hospital in Portland said.

Zimmerman is confident Tabitha will recover.

"She's going to have such a testimony to what you can overcome with God," she said. "God will heal her and she's going to be there to tell everyone 'look what I went through and I still praise God.'"

Zimmerman said Schulke can still realize her goal of becoming a missionary, but for now, that's secondary to her family's goal of simply getting her out of the hospital and back home.

"Just her surviving, that's all that matters," Zimmerman said through tears. "Not Christmas, not anything, just... we want Tabi."

Besides Tabitha's serious illness, her family is also dealing with other challenges.
Her brother has an inoperable brain tumor and the family lives more than an hour away in Monmouth, making trips to the hospital time-consuming and expensive.

But they said they are getting donations and other assistance from fellow members of the Independence First Baptist Church.

There is a CaringBridge page for Tabitha and a ChipIn page where direct donations to the family can be made for her care.