Tom Boonen reveals he nearly lost his arm to septic infection

Belgian star says he was eight hours away from doctors having no option but to amputate

by Simon_MacMichael   February 13, 2013  


Tom Boonen has revealed that he came within hours to having to have his arm amputated as a result of the septic infection he contracted after sustaining an apparently innocuous cut during a training ride near his home in Belgium last month.

Speaking earlier this week at the Tour of Oman, the 32-year-old said: "I'm happy I've still got my arm. That's a bit more important than having good form,” reports Yahoo! Eurosport.

Boonen had visited a hospital in Herantals to have the cut checked out after it became infected, and went home with a course of antibiotics.

However, when he returned to the hospital the next morning, his arm was so swollen that doctors decided to operate immediately, and Boonen has now said that any delay could have had grave consequences.

"That's what they told me, eight hours. If it hits the bone, the arm was gone and it was only a few millimetres from the bone.

“On the Friday there was nothing but then on Sunday they told me that if I hadn't done anything, Monday would have been too late."

He said of the infection: "Everybody has it on their skin but if it goes in your body and your wound closes and the crust forms, it starts breeding."

"Your elbow is probably the worst place to have it because there is no blood circulation. Otherwise the white cells kill it. But it had time to breed and got strong enough to attack the rest of my body."

The Omega Pharma-Quick Step rider spent a week in hospital recovering from his operation and missed the Tour of Qatar, which has become something of a barometer of his Classics form.

The last three times he’s won that race, he’s gone on to win the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix, and last year, both.

11 user comments

Oldest firstNewest firstBest rated

Sounds remarkably similar to what happened to Johan Museeuw BITD:

There must be something in the water in Belgium.

Velotastic !

Too many hills, but too little time.

badback's picture

posted by badback [295 posts]
13th February 2013 - 12:31


I would love to see if the infection was on the front or rear of the elbow. Sorry, sceptical old me.

posted by Colin Peyresourde [1488 posts]
13th February 2013 - 14:37


Sounds like he got MRSA. Hospitals in Belgium a bit dirty?

posted by mattheww385 [45 posts]
13th February 2013 - 14:48


Actually, my experiences of hospitals in Belgium is that they are anything but dirty. Healthcare in Belgium is extremely good. I came off my bike last summer (over the handlebars after I hit some broken tarmac) and made a gravel-sized hole in my arm. I've never seen hospital staff move so quickly on something that in other countries you'd be left waiting with for hours - three stitches, spotlessly clean environment.

Dave Walsh
Writer, Photographer

posted by davewalshphoto [7 posts]
13th February 2013 - 15:01


'Sounds like he got MRSA. Hospitals in Belgium a bit dirty?'

why do we bother with spending all this money on microbiology labs in order to identify pathogens? we should just ask someone on a cycling forum.
Good old armchair science. Can't beat it.

posted by andyp [1348 posts]
13th February 2013 - 16:09


So, what would they do in an operation to stop the infection? Cut out a big chunk of flesh? Just curious.

posted by amazon22 [188 posts]
13th February 2013 - 23:52


It sounds like staphylococcus, which I think is present on skin, if I remember what I was told when it attacked me. I doubt it was MRSA - sounds like it was in the right place to breed without needing special resistance - but maybe it was.

posted by a.jumper [780 posts]
14th February 2013 - 0:15


andyp wrote:
why do we bother with spending all this money on microbiology labs in order to identify pathogens? we should just ask someone on a cycling forum.

Why do we bother with reporters more like? They write reports like the linked one, but leave out what the problem actually was, leaving people on forums to try to deduce it.

posted by a.jumper [780 posts]
14th February 2013 - 0:18


andyp wrote:
'Sounds like he got MRSA. Hospitals in Belgium a bit dirty?'

why do we bother with spending all this money on microbiology labs in order to identify pathogens? we should just ask someone on the internet.
Good old armchair science. Can't beat it.

FTFY Big Grin

London2Paris24: 450km, 24 hours, 5th-6th July 2014

I will miss TdF in Yorskhire!!! Please donate! Big Grin

koko56's picture

posted by koko56 [334 posts]
14th February 2013 - 3:34


The description of a bacteria which is normal skin flora does fit with a Staphylococcus Aureus which is commonly found on the skin or within the respiratory tract.

MRSA is a form of Staphylococcus Aureus which is resistant to many antibiotics. It's not necessarily any more pathogenic but it is more difficult to treat.

From whats written in the article it sounds like the infection (whatever it was) developed prior to the hospital visit so whatever it was it seem difficult to blame "dirty belgian hospitals".

While it's fair to say that osteomyelitis (infection of the bone) is a serious condition immediate amputation without a trial of IV antibiotics would not be a normal course of treatment. These days for a young healthy patient (let alone an international athlete with private medical cover) removal or the infected bone and later bone grafting would also be likely to be attempted prior to formal amputation.
The operation performed here is likely to have been a washout of an abscess (collection of pus) which is very common and relatively risk free.

This article is fairly typical of those covering any "serious" medical condition or miracle recovery. It's basically chinese whispers.
The doctors explanation to the patient will be an over simplification, and they may be overly dramatic "we have saved your arm!!!"
The patient may misunderstand (they are ill at the time) and will naturally remember the big worst case scenario statements more than the other information.
They then tell a friend/the press, they may exaggerate the story themselves and if they don't the press certainly will.

Sorry for the essay, medical reporting is a bit of a pet hate of mine. I find it generally misinforms and scaremongers which makes it more difficult to reassure people or gain their trust when they do require treatment.

posted by SpooksTheHorse [28 posts]
14th February 2013 - 9:03


Does anyone else want to wish Tom a speedy recovery so we can be entertained come the cobbled classics?

Get well soon Tommeke.

Exercising my rights by taking them cycling

posted by pedalingparamedic [93 posts]
15th February 2013 - 8:39