LUBBOCK, TX (KCBD) - Flesh Eating Bacteria made headlines earlier this summer with a couple cases along the Texas gulf.
But, you don't have to be near the ocean to get that infection. One Lubbock man is still trying to figure out how he got it here at home.
Tom Gowdy says it was a shock when he woke up and found out what happened during surgery.
His wife, Cat, adds, "It's very scary, especially since we don't know specifically where he got It.
It is Necrotizing fasciitis, more often called the flesh eating bacteria.
Two other patients this summer know where they were infected. The first in Galveston triggered a warning to avoid ocean water if you have an open cut. Then, another case at Aransas Pass, where a 53-year-old man cut his foot as he walked into the water. His wife described in news reports how it spread quickly and within 24 hours, he couldn't walk. His leg was eventually amputated.
But the ocean is a long way from Lubbock, where Tom Gowdy says he doesn't even know how he might have cut himself, since the bacteria typically sneaks into an open cut. He can only remember that some time earlier, he had walked the dog and stubbed his toe while wearing flip flops. But it was a week later, at a basketball game, that his wife, Cat, became worried. Cat explains, "I looked down at his feet and there were black blood blisters on his big toe and he was bleeding out his toes, in between his toes."
Cat convinced Tom to let her drive him to the Emergency Room. But halfway to Covenant, his foot and leg were so red and feverish that she pulled over and called an ambulance.
By the time an ambulance got Tom to Covenant Hospital, the situation was urgent. Tom's leg looked suspicious all the way up to the knee.
Dr. Robert Gaines, a surgeon who specializes in Orthopedic Trauma, says, "When it comes down to life or limb and the infection is growing very rapidly, sometimes we do have to do emergent amputations."
Tom lost his big toe in that emergency surgery.
When he came out of surgery, he says his biggest concern was what would happen next.
He says, "There was the fear of further spreading and were they really done?"
Tom did go back into the operating room for another surgery to remove the second toe and take a skin graft from the back of the calf.
As Tom was healing at home, the Gowdys contacted me to tell their story. They wanted to share what they had learned about this bacteria so others might avoid what they had experienced.
As I sat in their living room, Cat noticed red streaks appearing on Tom's ankle just above the foot that was now missing two toes.
She immediately started circling the streaks with a marker so that she would notice if the redness began to spread outside her lines.
She called a nurse in the emergency room and was advised to return to Covenant to make sure Tom was okay.
Within minutes, the Gowdys were walking back into the emergency room, where a wheelchair was waiting to roll him back into an exam room.
"Here we go again," Tom said as he rolled down the long hall to learn if the flesh eating bacteria was again a big threat.
So what is this dangerous bacteria?
Dr. Gaines says "The flesh eating bacteria, Necrotizing Fasciitis, is actually multiple kinds of bacteria, most commonly the same stuff that can cause strep throat. It can happen spontaneously from a break in the skin or from a chronic wound gone bad."
Dr. Gaines was not at Covenant the day Tom returned with new red streaks, but he was in contact with the emergency team as they peeled back the bandage.
Two surprises as that team checked the wound. They asked, does it hurt?
Tom said no. Pain is usually the first clue when Necrotizing Fasciitis infects an open cut. Dr.Gaines says it is a much greater pain than you would expect from a rash or a little cut.
"But", he adds,"It can still happen to otherwise healthy people with a little bit of bad luck."
And, he says, it often starts with a fever and chills, flu-like symptoms.
Tom did go to bed feeling he was coming down with the flu, experiencing fever and chills the night before the black blisters showed up.
This second time in the emergency room, Tom was hospitalized for two days while they did all sorts of blood work and gave him antibiotics to make sure the flesh eating bacteria was no longer a threat.
So, here's what the Gowdys have learned from this ordeal…
First, the flesh eating bacteria is everywhere.
Dr. Gaines says, "The bacteria is on our skin. It's part of our normal flora."
Secondly, people with weaker immune systems are more at risk. But, Dr. Gaines says, "It can still happen to otherwise healthy young people…with a little bit of bad luck."
And finally, there is just no way to prevent it.
Dr. Gaines says there are 10,000 cases in this country every year, which divides into about 200 cases per state, not taking into account how big Texas is. Not that we should live in fear, but we should be more aware. He says, "We can't avoid it. The key is to get to it early, If you get to it early, you can avoid a whole lot of the issues."
Cat adds something she wants everyone to know, "If you see black boils on the body anywhere, go to the ER immediately."
Dr. Gaines agrees.
Thanks to a wife with a watchful eye and fast medical attention, Tom is walking, without two toes, but grateful that is all he lost.
He says, "God was definitely watching over us."