Tooth decay almost kills Olympia man after infection spreads to his skull

A decaying tooth almost cost Michael Cooper his life.

Bacteria from the untreated molar had eventually spread to Cooper’s sinuses. He was suffering severe headaches and seizures.

Cooper’s condition hit critical mass when, as his wife Bonnie Mills described it, “his forehead ruptured with liquid bone.”

Doctors at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle performed two surgeries on Cooper — and had told the couple his case was among the worst they had seen.

That was three years ago, when the couple had been living in a motorhome in the woods in the Lacey area. Today, Cooper continues to recover with help from Mills, his wife of 32 years.

“If it hadn’t been for her, I wouldn’t be alive,” said Cooper, 57. “She’s been one hell of a trooper.”

Cooper suffered from a condition called osteomyelitis, which refers to an infection of the bone or bone marrow.

Online medical journals report that osteomyelitis rarely affects the skull, and that mortality rates in such cases can range from 20 percent to 40 percent.

As a result of the condition, Cooper now has a dent in his forehead where the bone had dissolved. His recovery is ongoing, and he is unable to work.

The couple now stays at the Interfaith Works Overnight Emergency Shelter in Olympia with their two dogs, Peanut and Dubious. Each day is a struggle to get back to his old self, Mills said of her husband. She praised Cooper’s “don’t quit” attitude about life.

“It’s been one heck of a fight,” said Mills, recalling how quickly the infection had taken hold. “I don’t want to see anyone go through what we went through.”

Dr. Garrett Barker of Fisher-Jones Family Dentistry in Olympia said the infection of a severely decaying tooth will take the path of least resistance, and in rare cases can penetrate bones. Sometimes the infection in a tooth on the lower jaw can drain down into the heart, he said.

“Most patients don’t get to that point because the pain is so bad,” said Barker, adding that people sometimes avoid treatment for financial reasons.

In the past, Barker said he has joined other local dentists to help people at the Union Gospel Mission and educate people about good oral health. He said the mission also is a good resource for connecting homeless residents with dental services.

“Once a cavity forms,” Barker said, “it needs to be treated.”