On June 7, 2013, while fishing along the rocks in front of Grand Isle, Rick Garey contracted the flesh-eating bacteria vibrio vulnificus through a minor scrape on his left ankle.
Within 48 hours, he was literally fighting for his life at Lady of the Sea General Hospital in Cut Off and then at Terrebonne General Medical Center in Houma, where he endured seven surgeries and a two-week stay, including three days in critical care.
Now, more than a year since that fateful Friday afternoon fishing trip, Garey is dealing with life after vibrio.
He celebrated his 57th birthday last week, and he fully understands how fortunate he is to have been given that opportunity — with his left leg intact.
“I’m real happy I can see 57,” Garey said. “I didn’t know if I’d see 56 for a while.”
In the last year, Garey has undergone extensive wound care treatment since the bacteria created a golf ball-sized hole above his ankle, including multiple visits to a hyperbaric chamber, painful surgical debridements of the wound and home health visits to make sure the site drains and heals properly.
The debridements, where the medical staff used an instrument similar to a potato peeler to scrape away the outside edges of the raw wound, were unbelievably painful, he said.
“That wasn’t pleasant in the beginning. As it got closer to the end, it wasn’t anywhere near as bad, but that was really something,” said Garey, who described how he was initially given shots directly into the wound to deaden it for the procedures. “But that hurt worse than the scraping.
“After a while, I said, ‘Don’t worry about it. I’m just going to hang on to the edge of the bed.’”
The wound, although much improved, still hasn’t completely healed — Garey still has about a quarter-sized spot near his left ankle that’s raw. He's still actively being treated, and his last debridement was just in April.
“The destruction to the epidermal and vascular layer was so intense that it’s had a really hard time healing, and it’s driven them nuts a bit,” he said. “That area has been a pain in the butt for the last couple of months.”
Garey wears compression socks to help his circulation and reduce swelling at the site, and also applies oil to the area each day to keep his skin moist and prevent it from cracking.
“I guess the way I’m looking at it is it’s functional,” he said. “I’m going to be living like this for the rest of my life like other people do with wounds. I’ve got to learn how to take care of it and you’ve got to stay on top of it.
“But it’s almost done now. It’s 99.9 percent. It’s getting a little better each week.”
He wasn’t able to return to his teaching job this past school year, but was able to start coaching soccer again from a bench last fall through his Ascension Soccer Academy.
"I'm back out there again," Garey said, noting he can now pass and trap the ball with his left foot. "When I started last fall, I couldn't stand on my foot. I couldn't use it. But the people were wonderful, and they've come back out. It's really been good."
His brush with vibrio has him focused on doing his best for the kids every single opportunity he gets.
“It’s just a blessing to see those faces and work with them every night. You’re trying to give everything you can to the next generation by giving them that foundation that helped you get where you are,” he said. “It makes you realize how short life is, and to live it every day. I’m a John Wooden fan, and he said to live each day like it’s a masterpiece.
“Whatever you’re doing that day, make it a masterpiece. Because there’s not that many, and after a day is gone, it’s gone forever.”
With that same spirit, the Gonzales resident returned to fishing one of his favorite spots out of Lafitte late last summer, just a few short months after contracting the bacteria.
“I looked like some kind of creature from space on that leg,” he said with a laugh. “I had it all wrapped up, but I was determined to go. I had rubber gloves on, waterproof pants and there was no way anything was getting on that wound area.
“It was hot as hell, but it felt really good. We went out and caught some nice trout.”
He’s been half a dozen times since last summer, and as a vibrio survivor, is quick to remind everyone to take all of the necessary steps to be safe on the water, including using hand sanitizer, washing off with fresh water, protecting your hands with something like a Jus' Grab It glove and always wearing a life jacket.
“Vibrio is bad news. It’s nasty stuff. When you mention vibrio around doctors, you can almost see the color change in their face,” Garey said. “It happens fast and it’s wickedly efficient, and you don’t even know it.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a macho NFL lineman, it will eat you up just as fast.”
Overall, with a year's perspective now on the infection, he’s just very thankful to be alive.
“It keeps me very humbled. I’m very thankful for my family and friends,” Garey said. “It’s reinforced a lot of the things I believed in anyway.
“I have a very big faith in God, and for whatever reason, it just wasn’t my time.”