Cancer medication causes former Olympian's skin to fall off due to mysterious syndrome

A former Olympian and beloved Houston teacher battling cancer soon realized things were about to get even worse. She ended up in the intensive care burn unit at Galveston’s UTMB Hospital after her skin began falling off from a rare syndrome that’s actually caused by medication.

The medicine Debra Armstrong Rogers was given to help save her life from cancer actually nearly killed her. She spent more than a month in the burn unit at UTMB Galveston as doctors nursed her back to health.

"It was just horrible. I’ve never experienced anything like that,” says Rogers. 

It happened in 2019 when Rogers was newly diagnosed with Leukemia. Days into treatment her skin began coming off. 

"It was just falling off. I had no skin from head to toe. I was burned 100% inside and out."

Well, it looked as though she suffered second-degree burns but it was actually what’s called Stevens-Johnson Syndrome and Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis (TEN). 

"It’s more like having an allergic reaction to certain medications,” explains UTMB Galveston Surgeon Dr. Jong Lee who is Rogers’ doctor. 

Lee says everything from cancer, seizure and psychiatric medicines to antibiotics can cause this syndrome "but even common medications such as Tylenol or Ibuprofen, those can cause it too."

”When I saw my face I just started crying, it was horrible,” cries Rogers. 

So much of Rogers skin fell off, we’ll show photos of her face but the pictures of the rest of her body are just too graphic. 

After three weeks in intensive care, she was in excruciating pain. Her open wounds had to be cleaned and wrapped with new gauze every day to keep her from getting an infection. 

“The wrap had medication in it. They wrapped me like a mummy. They would wrap me from head to toe. They would have to spray rubbing alcohol on my body and removing the gauze every day. I was in so much pain. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. It was like a nightmare. My face was messed up and I remember saying God if this is it you can take me because I can’t take it anymore," Rogers said.

The very next day, things looked very different.

“The nurses started screaming and hollering saying 'Mrs. Rogers, Mrs. Rogers, what happened? Go get Dr. Lee.' God healed my skin. I had skin. From that time on I was on my road to recovery."

Rogers knows about strength and endurance. She’s a two time Olympian in track and field competing in 1972 in Munich and in 1976 in Montreal. Her son Aaron Armstrong won a gold medal on the U.S. Olympic relay team in 2008 in Beijing. Armstrong says he’s in awe of his mom’s courage. 

“She’s superwoman. She's my idol. She’s amazing,” he smiles.

”My body is still burned up, the skin you know. That’s why I cover up. It’s still bad but I’m healing. Prayer is what brought me through. So many friends and family supported and encouraged me,” explains Rogers.

“The good thing is it’s very rare,” says Dr. Lee who says about 20,000 people suffer from this in the U.S. every year. “It can affect any of your mucous membranes including your lips, your mouth, your eyes, your windpipe, your lungs, your gastrointestinal tract, your stomach, even your genitalia and anus."

Because of this debilitating skin syndrome, Rogers retired from HISD where she taught Physical Education for 41 years. She continues her battle with Leukemia. 

“God is still working miracles and I’m one of his miracles," she says.

Dr. Lee says about 30 percent of the patients diagnosed with Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis die. He says there typically are not any warning signs. You won’t know you’ll have this type of reaction to any given medication until it actually happens.

Rogers says she realizes she was given a second chance at life. Now she plans to do what matters most, enjoy quality time with the people she loves. 

“We just came back from vacation. She got a chance to go to the Bahamas. Seeing her get in the water was like a re-birth. This is what life is about, enjoying the moments,” smiles Debra’s son Aaron. 

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