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HEALTH SCARES: Carefree day out gives deadly bacteria leg up


A minor canoeing accident could have turned fatal for a Stafford County man who contracted a flesh-eating bacteria.

Steven Strong was returning from a sunset canoe ride on Aug. 10, when he fell into Aquia Creek and scraped his shin on a rock.

The cut was about 1 inch long, and Strong applied a bandage and went to bed.

The next morning, a Monday, he was in excruciating pain. His leg was red and tender. He went to an urgent care clinic, where he received antibiotics and pain medicine.

By Aug. 12, the pain still wasn’t abating. So Strong went to the emergency department of Stafford Hospital. Doctors admitted him, diagnosed sepsis and performed surgery the next day.

Doctors discovered that aeromonas hydrophila—described by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as “a species of bacterium that is present in all freshwater environments and in brackish water”—was attacking Strong’s soft tissue.

They removed the damaged tissue and prescribed antibiotics.

The infection came in the middle of a rough summer for Strong, 52, who had just finished chemotherapy for cancer when he fell into Aquia Creek.

During his cancer treatments, doctors discovered that Strong has an aneurysm and he was scheduled to have surgery today to correct that. But Strong shrugged off the chemotherapy and two surgeries, pointing out that with the cancer, the aneurysm and the flesh-eating bacteria, doctors discovered problems early enough to treat them.

“I’m counting my blessings, really,” Strong said.

It is “fairly rare” to see this strain of bacteria in patients, said Dr. Norman Bernstein, who treated Strong in the hospital.

Bernstein, who is part of Mary Washington Healthcare’s Infectious Disease Associates, said that doctors in that practice see about a handful of cases each year.

The infections from the bacteria range from mild to severe, and some patients could simply see a doctor and receive outpatient antibiotic treatment, Bernstein said.

Neither the Health Department nor the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention keep track of aeromonas hydrophila, which made national news this spring when a Georgia college student contracted the bacteria while using a homemade zip line.

The bacteria left Aimee Copeland fighting for her life, and doctors had to amputate her leg, according to reports on CNN.

Strong considers himself lucky. He lost a small chunk of tissue in his leg. He credits his doctors for their speedy response.

The bacteria reproduces quickly, meaning that an infection can turn fatal in a short amount of time. So early detection is key.

“You just can’t afford to delay treatment,” Strong said. “I’ve been very, very fortunate.”

With all of his medical issues, Strong had to take a leave of absence from his job training military and police for AT Solutions.

He was the second local patient to fight a flesh-eating bacteria this summer.

A Stafford resident contracted vibrio vulnificus while swimming in a Potomac River inlet near Callao in Northumberland County in the Northern Neck. Vibrio vulnificus is another bacterium that lives in warm saltwater and can be ingested—usually by eating raw oysters—or can enter the body through open wounds.

That man went to Mary Washington Hospital, and also credited doctors for quickly diagnosing and treating the bacteria.

Across the state, vibrio cases are on the rise. But locally, there has only been one case of vibrio so far this year, said Stephanie Goodman, epidemiologist for the Rappahannock Area Health District.

Bernstein treated both Stafford men who contracted flesh-eating bacteria this summer. He said there’s no cause for alarm but urged caution.

Bernstein said that people should perform basic first aid whenever they have a cut or laceration—cleaning the wound with antiseptic and using a bandage.

And people should be careful when going into the water, said Curtis Dalpra with the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin.

He recommended waiting three days after a rainstorm to go into the water, because runoff contains nutrients that help bacteria thrive.

Dalpra also said that people with compromised immune systems or open cuts should take special precautions when entering the water.

But they shouldn’t stick to the shore out of fear. Dalpra said that hundreds of people boat, swim and water ski on the Potomac River and its tributaries every day.

“And the vast majority of them are not having problems with bacteria,” he said.

Amy Umble: 540/735-1973