HOUSTON – A Nacogdoches man was in critical but stable condition after three surgeries aimed at saving him from a flesh-eating bacteria that infected him during a swim off the coast of Galveston County.
Steve Gilpatrick, 58, was diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis, a tissue-destroying disease caused by a bacterium called Vibrio vulnificus, when he took ill three days after swimming during a July 8 fishing trip at Crystal Beach.
Gilpatrick's physician, Dr. David Herndon, the chief of burn services and professor of surgery at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, said Tuesday the situation is life-threatening because the infection spread to Gilpatrick's blood. Gilpatrick is suffering from multiple organ failure and doctors are trying to save his leg.
"I've heard of flesh-eating bacteria, but it always seemed so far away," said his wife, Linda Gilpatrick. "It's not. It's here."
The Gilpatricks regularly vacation in Galveston each summer, she said.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the bacterium Vibrio vulnificus thrives during summer months in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Swimmers with weakened immune systems, such as cancer patients or people with liver disease, are most at risk. A point of entry, such as an open wound, allows the bacteria into the body.
Gilpatrick is diabetic and had an ulcer on his lower leg when he went swimming. His wife said he believed the sore was nearly healed. His leg became infected three days later and he began running a high fever.
"We figured he had some type of infection," Linda Gilpatrick said. "But we didn't, of course, realize the extent of it."
The CDC says most cases of Vibrio vulnificus occur along the Gulf Coast, but it's rare. In Texas, there were 22 cases of the infection reported in 2006, with at least seven caused by water contact, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.
People can also be infected by eating contaminated seafood. Raw shellfish, particularly oysters, pose the greatest risk, according to CDC. The bacterium causes nearly all seafood-related deaths in the United States, the agency says.
Symptoms of the disease include vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain. When it infects the bloodstream, it can cause fever, decreased blood pressure and blistering skin lesions.
Dr. Robert Atmar, a professor and infectious disease specialist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said seafood-eaters should be aware of the infection risk, but healthy swimmers shouldn't worry.
"I wouldn't alter (swimming) activities based on this, if you're otherwise healthy," he said. "People who have chronic illnesses like diabetes or steroids or cancer or chronic liver disease, if they have open wounds or sores, shouldn't go wading in the Gulf during the summer."