Hilton Head man struggles to recover from flesh-eating infection, necrotizing fasciitis

tbarton@islandpacket.comMay 14, 2012 

Hilton Head Islander Barry Ginn shows how far he can lift his left arm after he fell victim to a rare bacterial infection that attacks soft tissue and destroys muscle. Necrotizing fasciitis often leads to amputation and in some cases death. Ginn had severe pain and a fever in his shoulder in February. He went to his doctor thinking he had torn his rotator cuff. Eventually, he learned that bacteria was eating him alive. To save him, three doctors removed much of his upper shoulder and arm as he underwent nine surgeries in just four days.

JAY KARR THE ISLAND PACKET

By most accounts, Barry Ginn should be dead. Fortunately, the Hilton Head Island resident has several guardian angels watching out for him.

Ginn survived a rare bacterial infection that attacks soft tissue and muscle, often leading to amputation and, in some cases, death.

In February, Ginn had severe pain in his shoulder and a fever. He thought he had torn his rotator cuff again and went to the doctor.

Instead, he learned -- nearly too late -- that bacteria was ravaging his body, eating him from the inside out.

To save him, three doctors removed most of Ginn's upper shoulder and a large portion of his upper arm. He underwent nine surgeries in four days.

Now, Ginn is trying to raise awareness about the infection, necrotizing fasciitis, and send a message of hope as a young Georgia woman fights for her life at an Augusta hospital.

"It kills you, and it kills you fast if you don't catch it," Ginn said.

He's just now beginning to understand what happened to him.

"It's about awareness," Ginn said. "The odds are better of you winning the (lottery) than catching this flesh-eating bacteria. But, guess what? I bought Powerball tickets and lost. But I did, however, get the flesh-eating infection. The biggest mistake I made was I wasn't honest with myself or my doctors.

"If you suspect there's something amiss, get to a doctor ... And if the skin is hot to the touch, something is going on and get to a good hospital ASAP. Don't screw around."

IN THE NICK OF TIME

Ginn went to his primary doctor and described his symptoms, all consistent with a torn muscle in his shoulder. Three days later, a friend drove him to Savannah to consult a surgeon, who concurred.

The doctor advised that Ginn schedule a follow-up in two weeks.

On the way home, Ginn's friend noticed he was sweating profusely. Ginn blew it off, thinking it was normal for someone with a torn rotator cuff.

Only now does he realize the fever caused by the infection affected his thinking. An emergency room attendant would later ask him if he was drunk.

His friend dropped him off at home. Another stopped by a few days later to find Ginn stumbling around his condo and called 911. Ginn was rushed to Hilton Head Hospital.

"I was dying," he said. Fortunately, close friend and Circuit Court Judge Carmen Mullen, along with Dr. Glenn Gwozdz, realized how dire Ginn's condition was and had him rushed to the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.

"The nurses at Hilton Head Hospital were fantastic and didn't leave my side," Ginn said. "They and the doctors kept me alive, but Carmen and Gwozdz saved my life by getting me to MUSC."

Once at MUSC, surgeons worked quickly to cut away dead tissue. In a brief moment of clarity, he said he remembers telling his daughter: "Don't let them take my arm, unless it's life or death. If I die, cremate me, take my ashes and scatter them in the waters off Bear Island."

Fortunately, surgeons were able to save his arm. Doctors later told him they discovered he had an aggressive, antibiotic-resistant staph infection and compromised immune system that likely brought about the necrotizing fasciitis.

He's unsure how he got the infection. Ginn said he had no visible wound for the bacteria to infect, unlike 24-year-old Georgia graduate student Aimee Copeland.

HOW IT HAPPENS

Copeland is fighting to survive a similar infection that forced doctors to amputate one of her legs. Her fingers and remaining foot might also have to be removed.

The 24-year-old contracted the rare infection within a few days after suffering a gash in her leg May 1 when she fell from a broken zip line in an outdoor excursion.

She's was infected by Aeromonas hydrophila, a type of bacteria found in fresh or brackish waters, according to the Food and Drug Administration's "Bad Bug Book."

Flesh-eating Aeromonas cases are considered extremely rare. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not keep statistics and only a handful of cases have been reported in medical journals.

The most common form of flesh-eating bacteria is Group A Streptococcus, the same bacteria that causes strep throat. There are various strains of the bacteria, some of which are more harmful than others. Under the right conditions, necrotizing fasciitis can occur, according to the National Necrotizing Fasciitis Foundation.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates about 9,000 to 11,500 U.S. cases of group A streptococcus each year. About 20 percent of the cases of necrotizing fasciitis are fatal, according to the CDC.

South Carolina health officials do not track cases of necrotizing fasciitis, but do track about 50 cases of group A strep per year that could lead to the flesh-eating infection, according to state epidemiologist Dr. Jerry Gibson.

Strep and staph infections are common, often carried by children, and can cause a range of illness -- most of them mild, Gibson said.

"Every now and then, it takes off and does something bad, but you can't predict how it's going to do that," he said, adding that heath officials typically learn of fewer than 10 flesh-eating cases a year.

In the case of necrotizing fasciitis, patients acquire an aggressive strain that invades deep into tissue. Carriers also may have a weakened immune system, Gibson said.

How one becomes infected matters as well. Those with wounds that become infected are more likely to develop necrotizing fasciitis than those who come into skin contact with the bacteria, he said.

Once the bacteria gets into the body, it quickly reproduces and emits toxins and enzymes that can destroy fat, skin and muscle. Gangrene quickly occurs, and the dead tissue must be surgically removed to save the patient's life, Gibson said.

Necrotizing fasciitis causes excruciating pain, dangerously low blood pressure, confusion, high fever and severe dehydration. Sometimes, the bacteria resides beneath the skin with few symptoms to explain the victim's conditions, often resulting in late diagnosis, Gibson said.

The bacteria also can cause organ failure: Ginn's heart stopped twice and his kidneys failed; he was rescucitated each time.

Though the bacteria has been eradicated from Ginn's body, the physical and emotional scars will long remain. The road to recovery involves lengthy, painful physical therapy and long-term psychological, emotional and spiritual help.

"It is a truly devastating disease," Ginn said. "It drains you financially, physically, emotionally and mentally. I'm not the person I used to be. My mind isn't what it used to be. ... But, I have an arm and I have a life because of the doctors, nurses and support of my (family).

"But this is a life-changing disease, and (Copeland) and her family need our prayers. I thank God every day for the blessings I've received."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Related Content

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Group A Streptococcus
  2. National Necrotizing Fasciitis Foundation
  3. U.S. Food and Drug Administration: Aeromonas hydrophila
  4. Parents Read Lips Of Woman With Flesh-Eating Bug: May 14, 2012

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