First responder gets deadly infection during Harvey rescues

By Haley Hernandez - Health Reporter

HOUSTON - Necrotizing fasciitis is the clinical term for the infection J.R. Atkins got while trying to rescue people from floodwaters after Hurricane Harvey. We've commonly heard that referred to as "flesh-eating bacteria,” and it is deadly.

Atkins caught the signs early enough to survive, but he warns others what to look for, since he knows many more Houstonians will come in contact with it during hurricane cleanup.

Atkins is a former firefighter and a medic. During the major flooding, he was in trying to save his neighbors in Missouri City by boating through his neighborhood. He did not anticipate he would be the one who needed saving.

“I knew what I was getting into which is the scary thing. I was fully aware that this could happen,” he said.

Since he's trained in floodwater rescues, Atkins said he recognized the signs that a terrible infection was in his arm.

“Next thing I knew there was a small little tiny bite on Tuesday, a little tiny bite on me that by Tuesday night grew to about a nickel-sized. The next morning, it had gone across the bone on the bottom side of my wrist and then like maybe 4 or 5 hours later it crossed the wrist and got into my hand and anytime the swell moves across the joint that's… I've always told that's been a bad thing,” Atkins said.

He thought the bug bite must have left his skin open to toxic waters, so he went to Houston Methodist in Sugar Land where they recognized the emergency, rushed him to the intensive care unit, and prepped him for days of operations.

“If it wouldn't have been for the nurses here at Methodist, I probably would have not been able to make it through it. I mean, there's no way I could have made it through it,” he said.

There's no way he could have survived, because Atkins started to get sepsis, meaning he was on a fast decline.

Now he's worried someone without knowledge of these symptoms would never catch it in time or know that what's sitting around Houston homes now could have much higher levels of bacteria.

"What I would like people to understand is that I went out in storm water, I didn't go out in sewage, and so if you look at what's going on in Houston and you look at the drainage issues… there's way worse stuff in there,” he said.

Atkins is out of ICU but remains in the hospital. He said he would still be out cleaning up if he were not in the hospital but he urges people to take precautions while cleaning: wear gloves, masks, boots and goggles.

If you are aware of a cut, place waterproof adhesives over your skin for protection and be aware that any swelling or redness should be seen by a doctor right away.

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