For Kenny Cross of Lackey, a four-day weekend getaway to Orange Beach, Alabama in May was a nice vacation. Contracting bacteria from swimming in the Gulf of Mexico, enduring his right leg swelling to three times its normal size and spending 15 days at the North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo, however, gives him a different review of the trip. As he continues to heal, his advice to beachgoers is simple.
“Swim in the pool and look at the water,” he said. “I’ve heard several stories [of bacteria contractions], and people are still piling to the beach and piling in the water but won’t quit until it happens to them.”
After spending an hour or so chest-deep in teal blue Gulf water, everything seemed normal. Forty-eight hours later on the drive home, he caught a sudden chill.
“We left at 10:30 Sunday and by the time we got to Meridian, he was freezing. He instantly started shaking and shivering and he wouldn’t let me drive. It was 92 degrees outside, and he had the heater on,” said his wife, Hope.
Kenny added he was steadily getting colder but after getting rest and Gatorade at home, he felt well enough to go back to work the next day. That night, he started having flu-like symptoms and went to see a doctor in Aberdeen first thing the next morning.
After being told he needed to go to the hospital and on to the North Mississippi Medical Center, Kenny’s worsening conditions, including cellulites, indicated by red and swollen skin, quickly elevated to going septic and having six IVs of antibiotics. In Tupelo, he underwent x-rays, CT scans, blood tests, wound tests and visits from surgeons and infectious disease specialists. His right leg started to swell during this time as well.
“The first seven to 10 days, I didn’t even know where I was,” he said.
Although he has since been able to return home, Kenny was receiving continued home health care until last Tuesday.
“We realized what happened when Dr. [Kevin] Hayes [at Monroe Regional Hospital] said he got something in the water. Infectious disease told us they couldn’t isolate which bacteria but said it was in the streptococcus pyogenes family. The reason it was climbing up his leg was because it wanted a blood source. It was going towards his heart,” Hope said.
Early in Kenny’s medical care, Dr. Hayes used a magnifying glass and flashlight to look for an open wound but couldn’t find anything. The last place to heal will indicate where the bacteria entered Kenny’s body, and it is thought to have been at the top of his foot.
“We were told it can enter through a hair follicle, a mosquito bite or a sand gnat bite. If you shave your legs, you’re at risk,” Hope said.
“The pain has been pretty bad. On a scale from 1 to 10, it’s been 6, closer to 7,” Kenny said of his leg.
Doctors have said it will take time for his leg to heal. As of last week, a month after first getting sick, it was still discolored but starting to get a little better.
Health officials said bacteria in the water are common, but safety warning systems are in place. Hope said a purple flag warning, which alerts beachgoers of beach pests, was issued after they left Orange Beach.
“These bacteria exist worldwide. Sometimes you see an increase because you see more people using the beach and the water, so the probability goes up. Mississippi has the same potential to have the same bacteria as Alabama,” said Alabama Department of Public Health Environmental Toxicologist Dr. John Guarisco.
He recommends for anyone who sustains an injury while in the water to wash it with soap and water and use antiseptic ointment.
“Bandage it and monitor it. If the wound gets hot and reddens, go see a doctor because there’s an infection, and it could get worse,” he said.
Mississippi, Alabama and Florida are among the list of states with beach monitoring programs, which track enterococcus bacteria levels in the water off of coastlines.
“We test for indicators for bacteria presence and track advisories there. We also have email and text lists, Tweet it out and send releases to local media,” said Robbie Wilbur, communications director of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, in explaining the Mississippi Beach Monitoring Program. “When there’s rain or wind events, that’s when we’re more likely to get those advisories. We recommend for people to not swim 24 hours after a significant rainfall.”
Guarisco said bacteria counts increase as animal feces is washed out through river systems and into larger bodies of water such as the Mississippi Sound and the Gulf of Mexico.
“Be cautious about recreating around congregations of waterfowl. They let go in the water and are not very particular of it,” Guarisco said.
Mississippi’s program tracks bacteria presence at 21 monitoring stations along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. When bacteria advisories are issued, signs are placed at the beach to notify the public water isn’t safe for human contact, but the beach, itself, is not closed.
Earlier this year, two separate instances of flesh-eating bacteria were reported close to Tampa. Kenny’s case was not flesh-eating bacteria.
Greg Dunn, environmental director for the southwest district of the Alabama Department of Public Health, said there have not been any cases of flesh-eating bacteria on the Alabama Gulf Coast he is aware of.
“True flesh-eating bacteria is different than vibrio. Some people refer to flesh-eating bacteria as vibrio. Vibrio can be caused by raw oyster consumption and wound contact in the Mobile Bay area where there are darker waters but also in some beach areas,” Dunn said. “Last year, we had several vibrio cases caused mainly by oyster consumption.”
Dunn said people could contract bacteria through cuts by fish fins or by cutting themselves on a fish hook.
Bacteria presence increases in warmer waters. Guarisco’s tips to stay safe include avoiding contact with water that is murky and/or covered with scum; avoiding getting water in your mouth and eyes; showering with soap and water after swimming; and not consuming shell fish if you have underlying health issues such as liver disease.
“It’s fun going out into the surf. Enjoy it but be advised,” Guarisco said. “You’re not going to escape bacteria; just take the precautions. You always take a chance when you go into the water with an injury. Don’t be scared to go in the water; just be smart about it.”