By Crystal Bonvillian, Cox Media Group National Content Desk
A Texas first responder who helped rescue people from the floodwaters Hurricane Harvey unleashed upon Houston nearly died after he contracted deadly flesh-eating bacteria.
J.R. Atkins, a former firefighter and medic, told KPRC-TV in Houston that he recognized the symptoms of necrotizing fasciitis right away after a mosquito bite near his wrist became infected. The serious skin infection kills the body’s soft tissue.
“The next morning, it had gone across the bone on the bottom side of my wrist,” Atkins, of Missouri City, told the news station. “Then, like, maybe four or five hours later, it crossed the wrist and got into my hand. Anytime the (swelling) moves across the joint, that’s, I’ve always [been] told that’s a bad thing.”
Emergency room staff at Houston Methodist in Sugar Land also recognized the danger when he went for treatment, KPRC-TV reported. They rushed him to the intensive care unit and Atkins, who was already developing sepsis, underwent several surgeries to eliminate dead and dying tissue.
Atkins, who was released from the hospital Sunday, said he was speaking out because he knows that people without his training in floodwater rescues might not recognize the signs of the infection if they are exposed to the bacteria.
“What I would like people to understand is that I went out in storm water,” Atkins said. “I didn’t go out in sewage, and so if you look at what’s going on in Houston, and you look at the drainage issues, there’s way worse stuff in there.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a number of dangerous bacteria can cause necrotizing fasciitis, though group A strep bacteria is the most common. The bacteria spread quickly, infecting the fascia, or the connective tissue that surrounds a person’s muscles, nerves, fat and blood vessels.
The infection can also damage the tissue surrounding the fascia and cause the infected tissue to die, the CDC reported. The infected person can lose that tissue, including entire limbs, and the illness can be fatal.
Symptoms can start just hours after exposure, and at first, the pain or soreness can mimic the feeling of a pulled muscle, the CDC said. The person’s skin may become warm, with a red or purple color, and it may begin to swell rapidly.
Other symptoms may include ulcers, blisters or black spots on the skin, fever, chills, fatigue and vomiting.
A person infected with necrotizing fasciitis needs immediate medical attention. Treatment typically includes hospitalization, strong IV antibiotics and surgery to remove dead tissue.
Surgery is often the only way to stop the spread of the infection, the CDC said.
To prevent infection, people should practice good wound care, including keeping draining or open wounds covered with clean, dry bandages. First aid should be applied as soon as possible to any break in the skin.
People with open wounds or skin infections should avoid spending time in natural bodies of water, as well as whirlpools, hot tubs and swimming pools.
To learn more about necrotizing fasciitis from the CDC, click here.