Autumn Willette, a seventh-grader at Lake Park-Audubon school, had E.coli for 10 days before she received treatment.

"I think she got out of school early on the seventh with a tummy ache," James Willette, Autumn's dad, said. "She doesn't really complain so we knew something was wrong."

Her parents, James and Mandy, took Autumn to different doctors and was told it was the flu. Or maybe it was her appendix. Or maybe something else.

"They kind of kept sending her home," Willette said.

It wasn't until Autumn saw her primary doctor that her illness was recognized as E.coli.

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Since then, the 12-year-old has battled rare complications of the bacteria and has been in a South Dakota hospital for more than two weeks.

Autumn and her family with the Autumn's Army T-shirts created by AA Design. (Courtesy photo)
Autumn and her family with the Autumn's Army T-shirts created by AA Design. (Courtesy photo)

E.coli is a bacteria that's found in the environment, foods and intestines of people and animals, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Autumn's case is not connected to any kind of outbreak in the state, the Minnesota Department of Health said last week.

After recognizing that Autumn had E.coli, she was almost immediately flown to Sanford Children's Hospital in Sioux Falls, S.D. Willette explained that Detroit Lakes wasn't as equipped for E.coli, especially since Autumn was still under pediatric care, and Sioux Falls was the closest location that could offer what DL couldn't.

Autumn and her family have been at the Sanford Children's Hospital there since Oct. 17.

Since they arrived, Autumn has had a catheter; done dialysis; had multiple MRIs, CTs, echocardiograms, and much more. The benefit of seeing multiple doctors for 10 days was that they continually put fluids in her system, which helped to slow down the E.coli.

But her E.coli led to her contracting Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS), which "basically shreds all your blood vessels and it attacks every organ in your body," Willette said.

"HUS is deadly in adults; kids have a little better chance with it," he continued.

Autumn had fluid forming around her heart, brain and kidneys because of it.

"We actually had to drain out some from her heart," Willette said.

With the E.coli and HUS, Autumn's treatment has been very specialized to what she needs and what will help her the most. Willette said that she had 15 bags of fluids hooked up for her at one time -- she didn't eat any food on her own for 12 days.

Along with the numerous tests that were done on her almost daily, and being connected to multiple machines, Autumn is also getting "the most expensive shot in the world" every week, Willette said.

"I believe that dose is the world's strongest antibodies, it's the rarest and best antibodies for your body and that's why that treatment is expensive," he explained.

After many long, stressful days of draining fluid, taking tests and hoping that treatment works, Autumn and her family got some relief. They were able to control and get rid of the HUS and E.coli. She was taken off of dialysis on Oct. 24, she's been able to communicate more since then, and she ate Jell-O -- her first food in 12 days -- on Oct. 25.

"(She's) still on IV; having a hard time keeping down actual good," Willette said. "Her stomach's still trying to reactivate."

On Oct. 26, Autumn stood up, out of bed. A day later, she walked out of her hospital room for the first time since they've been there.

"She can't go home until she can walk," Willette said.

Autumn only needed one person to assist her as she walked 125 feet on Oct. 28. (Courtesy photo)
Autumn only needed one person to assist her as she walked 125 feet on Oct. 28. (Courtesy photo)

They also changed Autumn out of her hospital clothes, putting her in normal clothes again.

"It's basically recovery (now) but it's slow. She's exceeding expectations," Willette said. "But there's still things ... we don't know the extent of the brain injuries and the kidney injuries ... as time goes by we'll know more."

There's also still a small amount of fluid around her heart, and Autumn still has testing done, but she's in a completely different spot than she was a week ago.

A GoFundMe update on Oct. 30 said that Autumn is now working on occupation, physical and speech therapy. Her white blood count is getting better, but she has high blood pressure right now, so Autumn's doctors are still working hard to get her healthy. A Nov. 3 update said that she's being weaned off medication, which is difficult. She moved from the ICU to the pediatric floor on Nov. 2. They expect to be in the hospital for at least two more weeks, but it could be longer.

Even once they leave the hospital, Willette expects that "we'll have numerous trips back to South Dakota" for treatment, or checkups for that expensive shot. Autumn's recovery down the line is fairly unknown, as each case of E.coli and HUS is different, but she likely won't be able to participate in physical activity for a year, Willette said.

Through all of these, finding out that she'll be out of sports and being in and out of consciousness, Autumn has "been in good spirits the whole time, thumbs up," Willette said.

They've received many, many cards and gifts from local people, businesses and organizations. James said that they've even had strangers reach out or donate to help their family on their GoFundMe or bank account.

"Prayers ... and support from all our community and friends have been such a huge support," he said. "We're trying to bring it back to God and what he's done ... The biggest part of it all. Giving glory where it's due."

How to help

  • GoFundMe: www.gofundme.com/f/autumn-willette. Updates on Autumn's situation are also provided almost daily on the GoFundMe.
  • Bank account: State Bank of Lake Park, Autumn Willette account, P.O. Box 449, Lake Park, MN 56554. Checks can be made out to Mandy Willette.
  • Autumn's Army T-shirts: AA Design Studio has created Autumn's Army T-shirts. All profits will be donated to the Willette family, according to information on their Facebook page, @aadesignstudiodl.