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Clay County man survives flesh-eating bacteria

Fast action by ER doctors saves man from bacterial infection

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ORANGE PARK, Fla. – The instincts of a 51-year-old man from Clay County and the fast actions of two Orange Park Medical Center doctors saved a man from a potentially deadly flesh-eating bacteria, OPMC officials said.

Robert Morgan shared his story of survival with News4Jax on Wednesday when he reunited with Dr. Elias Tsirakoglou, the surgeon who helped save his life.

"I'm happy to be here and happy that I woke up and didn't lose a limb because it was very likely that I could have lost me right arm," Morgan said.

Morgan's ordeal began nearly three months ago, just before Christmas, when pain in his shoulder quickly worsened and he started having flu symptoms.

"By 2 a.m. that night, the pain was so bad that I knew it was something more than a pulled muscle. I've never experienced this kind of pain before," he said. 

Morgan thought he might have hurt his shoulder, so he got X-rays taken at an emergency room but was sent home without a diagnosis.

When the pain became unbearable, Morgan headed to OPMC's emergency room for a second opinion. He arrived sweating, weak and unable to move his right arm.

Within minutes, emergency room physician Dr. Justin Deaton recognized Morgan’s condition was potentially life-threatening.

“Progression of redness and bruising was happening right in front of our eyes in a short period of time. That confirmed that we needed to move quickly,” said Deaton, the emergency medical director of trauma for Orange Park Medical Center. “Every hour that goes by, the mortality rate goes up.”

Deaton immediately contacted Tsirakoglou, who noticed a small wound under Morgan's right arm.

"I had not even noticed that, and I said, 'I don't recall being bitten.' But he said, 'You have a serious skin infection going on,'" Morgan said. "He circled the area that you could see the redness. It may have been 20 minutes at the most that they came back, and it had already spread outside of the circle he had drawn."

The physicians diagnosed Morgan with necrotizing fasciitis, a bacterial infection that destroys tissue under the skin. It required immediate surgery.

“As soon as we were able to assess what was happening under the skin, I knew it was only hours before we could lose him,” Tsirakoglou said. “We used cutting-edge technology to get ahead of the disease, which helped us save his life without having to amputate his arm."

Doctors acted quickly.

“If Robert would have waited any longer, he wouldn’t have made it," Tsirakoglou said. "With this condition, time determines whether someone is going to live or die.”

It took seven procedures to remove the bacteria that was quickly eating away at Morgan's muscle. Skin grafts were taken from his legs to replace the majority of skin and muscle lost from his armpit down to his hip, and from his sternum to his shoulder blade.

“I’m very lucky. I’m happy to be alive and I’m extremely thankful for what everyone did,” Morgan said. “I may have missed last Christmas with my family, but I’ll have many more because of them.”

After five weeks at OPMC, Morgan was able to return home.

Along with going to physical therapy and pain management twice a week, Morgan is on a mission to warn others about what could seem like a harmless infection at first. 

“If you have an injury that doesn’t feel right or any kind of cut, no matter how small, that seems to be infected, don’t ignore it. Watch out for flu symptoms and get to the ER quickly," he said.

The Centers for Disease Control reports that 700 to 1,100 cases are recorded in the United States each year. Orange Park Medical treats several patients each month with the infection. 

Despite the high-quality treatment available today, the risk of death is 25-35 percent, increasing with delay to treatment.

People with weakened immune systems, including those with diabetes or kidney disease, are more at risk to contract the condition.

Symptoms include of redness, bruising, fever, fatigue and pain.

"You won't realize what's going on. But over the next couple hours, days, you'll get increasing pain, and pain that's out of proportion to any physical finding," Tsirakoglou said.

Ways to avoid necrotizing fasciitis include hand-washing. Anyone with an open wound or skin infection should avoid pools, hot tubs or bodies of water.