AUGUSTA, Georgia — While hiking with friends at Savannah Bluff Heritage Preserve in North Augusta on Aug. 31, Ian Buckley saw what appeared to be a head in the water. He quickly realized it was a woman standing waist-deep in the Savannah River, close to the Georgia bank.
"After a few minutes, I figured she was holding a dog or a baby," he said.
She appeared to be in trouble, so the Augusta Fire Department captain sprung into action, wading about 300 yards across the rapids to get to her, bouncing off rocks and scraping his shin.
The woman had a 4-year-old and a sunken kayak. Buckley worked to free the kayak, then helped the woman and the child to safety. As they moved on downriver, Buckley stumbled back across the river.
He never imagined the incident would land him in the hospital for a week, or that he'd find himself battling necrotizing fasciitis, the same infection that gained attention in 2012 when it cost Georgia resident Aimee Copeland her left leg, right foot and both hands.
Buckley woke up the next morning feeling stiff and went to work hobbling. He began feeling some flu-like symptoms and, as a paramedic, recognized the signs of infection. He elevated his leg, but that didn't help. His doctor put him on antibiotics, but the infection continued to worsen.
Later in the week, he felt swelling behind his knee and went to the Joseph M. Still Burn Center at Doctors Hospital and saw Dr. Fred Mullins, the center's medical director.
"When Dr. Mullins saw it, I think he knew what it was straight away," he said. "He said, 'I'll stop cutting when I run out of infection.' The first time I saw them unwrap it, I had an incision from just below my right knee to just above my ankle."
Necrotizing fasciitis is often called flesh-eating bacteria, but that term is misleading. It's not caused by one particular bacteria. The problem isn't the bacteria, but how it gets into the body.
"As it penetrates deeper, it gets in to the fascia, the covering of the muscle," Mullins said. "The fascia doesn't have a good blood supply to kill the bacteria."
It can start with just a scratch, but the infection spreads quickly.
"I've seen it spread before my eyes," Mullins said.
It's very uncommon. He said the burn center treats four or five cases per month in patients from across the region, and very few locally.
It's most likely to occur in someone whose immune systems are already compromised, such as diabetics, cancer patients and people who have immunosuppresion conditions.
"But it can occur in people with good immune systems," he said.
Mullins advised not dismissing a cut or a scratch as insignificant.
"If it starts looking funny, it needs to be seen," he said.
Cleaning the scratch or applying a topical antibiotic is good, though Mullins won't say that would prevent infection from occurring.
"Most people will scratch themselves and won't get it, but there are those certain cases," he said.
Buckley is still recovering and said he will be out of work for at least six weeks. He said the incident won't keep him out of the river, but he will keep antibacterial wipes handy, just in case.
"It's like crossing the road and watching out for the car," he said. "I'm not going to stay out of the river, but I don't want to repeat it, either."
Information from: The Augusta Chronicle , http://www.augustachronicle.com