Fishing near the rock jetties on Grand Isle in 2013, Rick Garey got a cut on his leg, cleaned it up and went about his business. Five hours later, he got chills and felt nauseated, and the pain in his leg was much greater than the small cut he got in the water earlier.
He didn’t know it yet, but that simple scrape was going to send him into an 18-month odyssey of surgeries, rehabilitation and the possibility of losing his leg or life — all because of the tiny Vibrio vulnificus bacteria that call Gulf of Mexico water home.
The bacteria infect the connective tissues surrounding muscles, nerves and blood vessels, and they sometimes produce toxins that destroy the tissue they infect, giving the condition its common name of “flesh-eating bacteria,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“They’re not really eating it but destroying it by the toxins they produce,” said John Hawke, professor of aquatic animal health at the LSU Veterinary School.
Every year, there are about 10 to 15 cases of infection from these bacteria in Louisiana, with about 60 percent of the cases coming from wound contact. The other illnesses come from blood poisoning, with a small amount — about 10 percent — coming from eating raw seafood.
The CDC estimates that vibriosis, which is caused by exposure to any one of the 12 types of Vibrio, causes about 80,000 illnesses a year in the United States.
The bacteria are naturally found in salt water and have nothing to do with pollution, said Raoult Ratard, state epidemiologist with the Louisiana Department of Health.
It’s not just Vibrio strains, but there also are streptococcal A, streptococcal B and a number of other bacteria that can have the same “flesh-eating” effect and that can be found anywhere, not just in salty water.
“It’s a long list,” Ratard said.
Most of the infections happen in people who already have immune system problems, he said, but anyone is susceptible. “It can occur with someone who has nothing wrong with them, completely healthy,” Ratard said.
For Garey, who had fished and hunted for decades in Louisiana waters without any problems, the effects of the bacteria hit fast. The pain in his leg was bad enough that he went to the emergency room fearing a broken bone but returned to the camp after doctors gave the all clear.
Back at the camp, though, he was rapidly declining, and he told his family he had to get back to the hospital because something was wrong.
“They couldn’t get a blood pressure on me,” Garey said. “It was touch and go.”
Eventually, the doctors got him stabilized, and he was transported to Terrebonne General Medical Center in Houma.
At one point, the doctor said he might have to amputate the leg. The doctor agreed to see what he could do once the Gonzales man said he was a longtime soccer coach.
When he woke up, not knowing what the doctor had found, “the nurse took my hand and said, ‘It’s still there, babe.’ ”
It was the first of a series of surgeries Garey went through to scrape away infected skin, followed by treatment and then rehabilitation. It took about 18 months for the wounds to finally close.
Garey was back out fishing the next year, but he now takes a number of precautions such as having disinfectant on the boat, using gloves and minimizing the amount of contact with the water.
“Absolutely go to the beach and enjoy, but take precautions,” he said.
To increase margins of safety, Garey recommends the use of gloves when handling fish, as well as a 10 percent bleach spray or other disinfectant after handling shrimp or bait. He also recommends cleaning any wound immediately, keeping that area out of the water.
Ratard added that if a wound starts getting sore, warm or swollen or hurts more than expected, seek immediate medical attention.
A few people, like Garey, will experience these symptoms within hours, while others may find it takes a few weeks to affect them, Ratard said. For most, the symptoms take hold in a day or two.
Eating raw seafood or putting cooked seafood back in a container that raw seafood came from also can cause serious illness and even death. Every year, about 100 people in the United States die from a Vibrio infection, according to the CDC.
In addition to the saltwater problems, freshwater rivers and ponds can contain a brain-eating amoeba that has infected and killed several Louisiana residents in the past few years. If this amoeba gets far enough into the nose, which can happen when someone dives into water, it might travel into the brain and cause damage.
All of this is not meant to keep people out of the water entirely, Ratard said, but to urge them to take precautions.
Garey, now retired after being a science and math teacher and soccer coach in Ascension Parish for years, tries to raise awareness about the need for precautions against the bacteria and for better epidemiology training for primary care physicians.
As the oceans continue to warm up, the water stays warm for a longer time, giving the bacteria a better home in which to multiply, Garey said.
What’s really important is that people recognize the warning signs if something does go wrong.
“It will kill you if you don’t get medical attention,” he said.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.