Cape Coral disabled veteran battles post-Ian 'flesh-eating' bacteria
Editor's note: Reprinted with permission from The Fort Myers News-Press.
Flat on his back in the Cape Coral Hospital fighting Vibrio is hardly how Terry Brennen wanted to spend his 79th birthday – or his whole October.
But that’s where the fit, gregarious 79-year-old has been after tackling the mucky mess Hurricane Ian left in his Cape Coral driveway: “Black, slimy gooey mud all over everything. He was raking and scraping up all the branches, fronds, sticks and debris,” his wife Carlene said. The work left Terry’s legs cut and nicked, so Carlene put antibiotic ointment and bandages on him. At first, he waved her off. “You know how guys are. He was saying, ‘Oh, I’m good’ and he was still out there raking up this crap.“
The next day, he was oddly warm. “I put my hand to his leg and it felt like fever,” Carlene said.
The third morning, they knew something was really wrong. He could hardly walk, she said. “I said, ‘Terry, you’re going to the hospital.’”
He’s been there ever since.
Brennen, retired director of community funding for WGCU public media, had been infected with Vibrio vulnificus, a saltwater bacteria carried in storm surge that’s has led to an unprecedented spike in cases in Florida – 65 so far this year – the most since the health department began tracking cases in 2008.
Lee County is the epicenter, with 29 cases and four deaths.
How does Vibrio vulnificus enter your body?
Related to cholera, the microbe occurs naturally in warm saltwater and can cause infection that destroys soft tissue, and, in serious cases, kill. It can enter the body in several ways, says Vibrio researcher Anthony Ouellette, professor of biology and chemistry at Jacksonville University.
“You either eat it, it gets into your ears or it gets in your blood through a wound,” he told The News-Press last week. The bacteria can enter through any breach in the skin: “cuts, sores – fresh tattoos, new piercings, any kind of body modification where your skin has been penetrated,” Oullette said. “People don’t always think about that awesome tattoo they got or that new nose ring,” but those can become routes of infection as well.”
Healthy people can become infected, but it’s immunocompromised people or those with chronic health conditions who are most at risk from V. vulnificus. Though Vietnam veteran Brennen is a three-workout-a-week, long-distance kayaker and biker, his Agent Orange exposure left him fully disabled, Carlene says. His diabetes and multiple heart surgeries have weakened his immune system, while spurring him to stay in shape, she says.
In healthy people, the bacteria can cause gastroenteritis that generally lasts about three days, according to the Department of Health in Florida. But “in those who are immunocompromised the bacteria can infect the blood causing septicemia that can cause severe or deadly infections in other parts of the body.” Symptoms include chills, fever, swelling, blistering, skin lesions, severe pain, low blood pressure and discharge from the wound. Without treatment, death can occur in a few days.
Brennen’s fighting hard, his wife says. He’s had three surgeries so far and is awaiting a fourth. “They took all the skin off his right leg from the knee to the ankle,” she said, ‘because they have to cut the infected areas away.” He’s on heavy-duty pain meds and eventually will have to have skin grafted from his back to his leg, she says.
Before this happened, the Brennens had never heard of Vibrio, she says. What especially unnerves Carlene is that her daughter, Shamie, as a two-time kidney transplant recipient, is also immunocompromised, “So I don’t ever, ever, ever want her around all that sludge,” she said.
Normally, she says, she’d be reluctant to share her family’s medical woes, but “I just want people to know how dangerous this is."
Stay safe from Vibrio vulnificus
If you have open wounds, cuts, or scratches, stay out of flood water, standing water, sea water and brackish water, if possible.
Immediately clean and monitor wounds and cuts thoroughly with soap and clean running water or bottled water after contact with flood water, standing water, sea water, brackish water or raw or undercooked seafood and its juices.
Cover your wounds with a waterproof bandage if it could come in contact with flood water, standing water, sea water or brackish water.
Seek immediate medical care if a wound develops redness, swelling, or oozing, or other signs of infection such as fever, increasing pain, shortness of breath, fast or high heart rate, or confusion or disorientation.
For more information, visit the Florida Department of Health’s Vibrio vulnificus website.
– Source: Florida Department of Health in Lee County