Calliope River bug takes man's leg

Fisherman Jim almost lost his after picking up vibrio vulnificus in the Calliope River in February
Fisherman Jim almost lost his after picking up vibrio vulnificus in the Calliope River in February

A RARE flesh-destroying bug has cost a man his leg and almost his life after being struck down by devastating bacteria in the Calliope River.

Fisherman Jim, as he’s known to his mates, was dubbed the “the miracle man” by Rockhampton medical staff, because he survived the horrific ordeal.

In late February, Fisherman Jim, 75, and his son went fishing at the start of the Calliope River anabranch for a peaceful afternoon’s fishing, unaware of the tragic saga to unfold over the next few days.

Jim had got a small cut on his leg sometime during the fishing trip, during which they caught a couple of crabs, and at day’s end, he climbed out of the boat into the river at the boat ramp to make the short trip to dry land.

“That’s when we’re pretty sure the bacteria got into him,” he said.

Fishermans Jim’s health deteriorated in no time, and his family .

“At midday the following day, Dad was restless, and the cut had a blister on the side of it,” he said

Later that afternoon, Jim’s son got a phone call from his step-mother to say his father’s calf muscle had gone numb.

“He’d gone downhill, and his calf muscle had gone a blacky, purple with massive blisters through it,” Jim’s son recalled.

“I got a shock, because I’d never seen him so sick. He was a tough man.”

Fisherman Jim was then taken to Gladstone Hospital by ambulance after a 000 call was placed.

“By 4pm he was incoherent. The thing spread like a bushfire,” Jim’s son explained.

Within an hour he became more confused and local doctors had no idea of Fisherman Jim’s ailment.

“No-one had ever seen anything like it,” Jim’s son said.

What it was turned out to be a deadly bacteria, Vibrio vulnificus.

Queensland Health Central Queensland Public Health physician Dr Margaret Young said the germ occurs naturally in tropical and temperate coastal marine waters.

“It flourishes in water temperatures of 180C and over,” she said.

“The germ does not eat flesh, but it releases toxins that can progressively destroy skin and muscles.

“Such infections may occur when a skin wound is contaminated by coastal seawater.”

Infections have occurred from Cape York to the Gold Coast, and the germ is not a notifiable disease.

Fisherman Jim’s condition worsened and he was heavily sedated as a preventative measure to stop him  

“They virtually had to knock him out because he was so confused and kept pulling the instruments on him off,” he said.

At 11pm, the decision to send the stricken man to Rockhampton was made, as nothing could be done to assuage the man’s suffering.

“His body swelled up, the veins in his eyes stuck out, his eyes bulged, and his head swelled to another third of its size,” Jim’s son said.

“They were running around watching him die, virtually.

“The (Gladstone) doctors were doing the best they could, and tried everything.

“One of them told me Dad’s survival rate was 10 per cent, according to one of the doctors when I asked.”

Fisherman Jim arrived at Rockhampton ICU about 2am, with his son following close behind.

“I got a thousand and one questions (about it) and I was sure it had come off the ocean,” he said.

“They were excellent up there, I take my hat off to them.”

In a fortuitous turn of events, a Rockhampton doctor had encountered the bacteria in Darwin and ordered a concoction of antibiotics be immediately administered.

“The leg was going blacker and had spread above his knee,” he said.

At 7am, Fisherman Jim’s son had the unenviable task of authorising doctors to remove his father’s leg.

The surgery stabilised Fisherman Jim, however the chances of him living were exceptionally slim.

“The doctor was dead set sure he’d die,” he said.

“His organs started shutting down, and if they hadn’t taken his leg off he would have been dead within an hour.”

Within four days, the bacteria had been isolated and Jim’s son was told its name, vibrio vulnificus.

“It travels just underneath your skin, and all the tissue behind it is dead,” Jim’s son said, after doing his own amateur research online.

In a coma for three weeks, Fisherman Jim was on dialysis for four weeks, the swelling taking that length of time to subside.

“He was probably supposed to die, so no one ever said anything until he woke up,” Jim’s son said.

“I thought he was dead and it was the machines keeping him alive.

“He’s a tough old bastard, very fit, and I’ve seen him get hit by box jellyfish and not even blink.”

When Jim awoke, for the first day there was no movement, and Jim’s son feared the family would be left with a shell. Then he slowly came around.

“He was very confused and couldn’t understand why the family was there and we’d say ‘how are you?’ and he’d say, ‘I’m alright, how are you?’ and here he is lying there missing a leg,” his son said.

Jim’s son suspects bilge water from a large vessel may have been the cause, however this has not been confirmed.

“(Rockhampton doctors) told us what it was and where it came from, and they said it was the likely scenario,” he said.

“They couldn’t be sure but it was the one that made sense.”

A short conversation after the ordeal gave an insight into Fisherman Jim’s thoughts on his recent loss of limb, when an intern asked him about only having one leg.

“He replied, ‘You don’t really worry about s**t like that’,” Jim’s son said.

“(The intern said) ‘No mate you don’t do you,’ and lifted up his pants and said, ‘Look you can get them in titanium in any colour you like’.”

As for the medical team in Rockhampton who managed to save a man’s life when he was three parts way to being dead, Jim’s son believes it was their skill and knowledge, as much as his father’s tenacity and spirit, that kept him from dying.   

“They were brilliant, I’ve never seen a team like it, the way they worked together, and Central Queensland is lucky to have them,” he said honestly.

Every time Fisherman Jim’s son now gets a cut, he’s paranoid.

“I want the awareness spread that this thing is out there,” he said.

“Carry spray and if you get a cut, spray it and gurney the cut.

“It could be last cut you ever get.”

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