ANNA MARIA, Fla. — A family beach vacation turned deadly after a 77-year-old woman fell and cut her shin.
Lynn Fleming of Ellenton endured a 3/4-inch scrape when she was walking along Coquina Beach. A lifeguard dressed the wound for her.
He "told us to have fun and be careful. You know, go about our day,” remembers Wade Fleming, Lynn's son, who was with her that day.
Lynn seemed fine the rest of that day as she swam and later went out to dinner with her family. Two days later, her friends convinced her to go to urgent care because her cut was even redder and swollen.
The next morning, those same friends found her semi-conscious on her bedroom floor and rushed her to the hospital.
“I didn’t hear about necrotizing fasciitis, didn’t know much about it. My wife and my mother-in-law were Googling it and said, “That’s that flesh-eating disease.’ So they said this is serious. So (I) talked to the doctor again, and he said, 'Yeah, you need to get down here now,'” said Wade.
Necrotizing fasciitis is fairly rare. The CDC estimates that 1,200 cases occur in the U.S. each year. But of those cases, one in three people die as a result of it.
“Necrotizing fasciitis is caused when bacteria that shouldn't be in the skin, get into the skin and produce toxins and poisons that eat up the skin. And it spreads. As bacteria replicate, they spread through the skin, making it worse," explains Dr. Juan Dumois, an infectious disease doctor at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.
It is critical to catch the infection early.
“The time when it becomes life-threatening is when that skin infection leads to the fevers, and the feeling bad, and the dropping in the blood pressure that’s a sign of sepsis. Once you get to sepsis and the bacteria have entered the bloodstream, that’s the most life-threatening component," said Dumois
However, not everyone who enters water with the vibrio bacteria will develop necrotizing fasciitis.
“So if the vibrio is in the water and you enter the water with a little scrape or scratch, it might get in through that scratch and establish an infection. But it is not always going to do that. That’s why you don’t hear 20 people who were at a beach in Bradenton suddenly developing flesh-eating bacteria," explained Dumois.
"There are certain people who will be more prone to having this problem than others. People who are older, especially over 60, their immune systems are just normally weaker as a result of aging.”
Wade wishes he knew about the warning signs sooner.
“Somebody could have maybe given us a couple warning signs. You know, said this is a possibility. Or maybe if she was diagnosed a little earlier, you know, maybe we would be sitting here talking to my mom without a leg, but you know, with a life,” said Wade.
This is believed to be the second case of a flesh-eating bacterial infection contracted on a Florida beach in the past month. A 12-year-old contracted similar bacteria while on the beach in the Panhandle and survived.
The key is to catch the infection early. So look out for warning signs like fever, severe pain and rapid swelling near the wound.
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