Milledgeville man fights flesh-eating bacteria

After amputation, another surgery planned for this weekend

lbibb@macon.comMay 24, 2012 

Milledgeville resident Paul Bales, whose leg was amputated below the knee Wednesday after being infected with flesh-eating bacteria, likely will lose more of the leg because doctors found more infection, his son said Thursday.

His son, Mike Bales, of Dacula, said his father’s problems began when he fell and cut his leg on his boat ramp at Lake Sinclair. What initially seemed like a minor injury quickly turned into a potentially deadly situation, he said.

“He didn’t think it was a big deal,” Mike Bales said. “Everybody cuts themselves working around the house.”

Mike Bales said his father bandaged the cut and played golf the next couple of days. Paul Bales sought medical attention, his son said, when he was unable to finish a game because of pain in his leg, which his son said was “unusual for him.”

After first receiving treatment at Oconee Regional Medical Center in Milledgeville, Paul Bales was transferred to The Medical Center of Central Georgia in downtown Macon. He was diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis, the same infection that caused Amiee Copeland of north Georgia to lose a leg, both feet and both hands.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta estimates there are about 800 cases of necrotizing fasciitis of varying severities reported in the United States annually, according to the CDC’s website.

Dr. Mike Green, a family practice doctor in Macon, said it’s his understanding that Bales is infected with a different organism than the strain of bacteria that infected the 24-year-old Copeland.

Just because the bacteria is different does not mean it is any less dangerous, though.

Necrotizing fasciitis, Green said, occurs when tissue from a wound gets infected and triggers a response in the body. He said there is not a single so-called “flesh-eating bacteria.”

Two-thirds of people who are diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis have another contributing condition that weakens their immune systems, he said.

Initial symptoms of an infection can be mild. Someone with a cut may notice redness or swelling around a wound or have a low-grade fever, Green said.

Green cautioned against public panic because infections requiring amputations are rare.

“We have thousands of people getting in Georgia rivers and lakes and aren’t getting this,” he said.

Green said flesh-eating bacteria are not unique to water, but that natural water sources are often unsanitary.

Dr. Ed Grimsley, an internal medicine specialist who is a professor at Mercer University School of Medicine, said necrotizing fasciitis is rare, even though there are four cases now in Georgia.

Grimsley said it’s “a little surprising” to see four cases happen so close together in the same region, but he thinks that is a coincidence.

Although the specific organism that affected Bales lives in water, Grimsley said, people should not fear going in the water. He said they should “use common sense,” like wearing shoes if walking in a rocky area of a lake.

In the event someone is cut while in the water, Grimsley said, “odds are you’re going to be fine.” He advised cleaning the cut immediately and applying antibacterial ointment. If symptoms of infection occur, medical attention should be sought.

Grimsley said the odds of being infected with necrotizing fasciitis are very slight.

Mike Bales said his family is hoping for the best. He said he has been impressed with the care his father has received in Macon.

Telegraph writer Liz Fabian contributed to this report.

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