There's a flesh-eating bug hiding along our coast that is easy to contact and frequently deadly. Here's one survivor's story.

By Don Shoopman

A Lafayette outdoorsman never had a chance, really, to save the fingers on his left hand last summer because he was unaware of a killer invisible to the naked eye, a deadly bacteria that thrives in warm, quiet salt water.

If Lou Groth had known, or even suspected, he might have been able to clean his hands properly after handling shrimp late one day in early July. Or, after his ring finger started swelling the next day, go to a hospital’s emergency room sooner.

What he wants to do is get the word out to other people so they know about the “bad little bug,” as he calls it, that is so prevalent along the coast and a constant threat during the summer months to outdoorsmen who love to work and play in South Louisiana.

Groth (pronounced growth), a 53-year-old geologist for Stone Energy, lived to tell about his case. Others aren’t so fortunate.

Carol White Groth, his wife who was born and raised in the Lafayette area, said, “It’s been a scare and we’d like to educate other people out there standing with their mouths open and wondering how that happened.”

Their education was live. Here is what they hope people will learn about:

Vibrio vulnificus is a bacterium in the same family as those that cause cholera, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It lives in warm seawater and is part of a group of Vibrios that are called “halophilic” because they require salt.

The CDC reports that Vibrio vulnificus causes infection in the skin when open wounds are exposed to warm seawater, infections that may lead to skin breakdown and ulceration. The highest incidences, according to the Infectious Disease Epidemiology Annual Report for 1997, are between May and September.

Also, people with immune disorders are at higher risk for invasion of the organism into the bloodstream and potentially fatal complications, the CDC said.

Vibrio vulnificus can cause disease in those who eat contaminated seafood, also. Healthy people who ingest Vibrio vulnificus suffer from vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain while immunocompromised persons, particularly those with chronic liver disease, face a severe and life-threatening illness characterized by fever and chills, decreased blood pressure and blistering skin lesions. Vibrio vulnificus bloodstream infections are fatal about 50 percent of the time.

Photo 1
Soon after Lou Groth encountered Vibrio vulnificus, his hand looked as though it had been through a meat grinder.

Comedian Ralph Begnaud of Lafayette, popular for his Cajun wit and humor, died last year from the infection within a few days after eating oysters. He was 51.

Vibrio vulnificus can be treated with an aggressive attack of antibiotics — doxycycline or a third-generation cephalosporin.

Hospitals in New Iberia and Franklin recognize the infection for what it is immediately because there have been so many cases, or similar cases, in those areas, according to Roger St. Dizier of New Iberia. Most of the cases dealt with commercial fishermen, he said.

Generally, however, few people are aware of the microscopic killer lurking in salt water.

St. Dizier, a Shreveport native who moved to the Teche Area in 1970 and was with Groth on that fateful evening in July, said some commercial fishermen in the parishes of those respective hospitals (Iberia and St. Mary) are highly cognizant of the bacterial dangers associated with a cut on the water. St. Dizier knows a commercial fisherman who wears gloves and brings a jug of Clorox along to wash his hands ... long before the infection of Groth.

Groth was born in South Texas and has lived in Lafayette for 37 years. He didn’t know anything about Vibrio vulnificus until the Fourth of July when he and St. Dizier took a week’s vacation to fish and relax at the camp their families share at Cypremort Point.

Like so many people, Groth and St. Dizier went to one of the dams on Marsh Island one evening to catch bait shrimp for a fishing trip the next day in the Gulf of Mexico. The men used cast nets and picked out the crustaceans after each picturesque fling of the cast net during the last hour of daylight

“Apparently, one of the shrimp spines stuck me in the left hand when I picked them up and put them in a bucket,” Groth said.

Groth steered the 23-foot Mako back after the fishing trip. He noticed the ring finger on his left hand was “a little bit swollen and a little bit sore” but didn’t think much more about it.

Unbeknownst to him, the bug was doing what comes naturally. It was invading the bloodstream. but meeting resistance around the wedding ring.

They got back to the camp. St. Dizier remembers that Groth mentioned the discomfort and showed him the swelling while eating some barbecue and having a cold one or two.

“He said, ‘Look at my finger, how swollen it is.’ It was swollen like a sausage,” St. Dizier said.

They eventually turned in for the night. But Groth was awakened about 2 o’clock in the morning by his puffy and aching hand, so he got up and took a few aspirin pills and went back to bed. Again, he didn’t believe there was anything seriously wrong.

Groth had to go back to Lafayette the following morning to be with his son, Jacob, 9. He was mowing the lawn mid-morning when he turned off the machine and went inside. The ring finger was swollen so much he feared he wouldn’t be able to get the ring off.

He resorted to cutting the ring.

“Once I cut it off, that’s what released the bacteria into my hand. The dam was broken,” Groth said.

He became very ill. Sweating and nauseous, he laid down but soon realized something was wrong, terribly wrong. In his own words, he was “sick as a dog.”

A neighbor drove him to the Medical Center of Southwest Louisiana. Before 6 p.m. he was on the operating table, which he would visit for each of the next four days.

Contrary to at least one published report, Groth never was in danger of dying, his wife said.

“That never was a factor. I guess it could have been in someone not as healthy,” she said.

But there were other specters and nightmares hanging over their heads, haunting them, she said.

“Of course, we were fearful of the strong possibility he would lose his hand,” Carol Groth, an audiologist, said.

“What concerned us is why it affected him the way it did. On top of being concerned about his hand and fingers I was asking myself, does he have cancer, too,” she said. “That way it was hard at that point. Is this the tip of the iceberg?”

She prayed. She stayed with him the full 18 days in the hospital. The first five days, which he doesn’t even remember because he was medicated so heavily, were the toughest for her.

“They (doctors) were not optimistic about his fingers at any point,” she said. “He had surgery daily. They’d come back and say, ‘Ahh, we had to remove a little of this one.’ I’d say, ‘We can live with that.’ They’d come back the next day and say, ‘Ahh, we had to cut a little bit of that one and a little bit more of this one.’”

After the surgeries, he was transferred to Lafayette General Medical Center, which has a hyperbaric chamber that speeds the healing process. It is an airtight compartment in which oxygen under high pressure is forced into the tissues of a person undergoing treatment of poisoning, acute infections or open-heart surgery, among other treatments.

St. Dizier, system manager for Cox Cable in Iberia and St. Mary parishes, was at the camp during the first few days that his fishing buddy for more than 30 years, as well as his college roommate at USL, was in the hospital in Lafayette. He was unaware fully of the events that were unfolding.

“When he left, he said he had had a bad night,” St. Dizier said. Then he learned that Groth’s neighbor had rushed the sick man to the hospital.

“I still didn’t put it together with the swollen finger,” he said. “When I got back Saturday, my wife (Becky St. Dizier) said it was some kind of infection and he might lose his fingers. His wife told her he was going into surgery. That really took the wind out of us.”

Despite the loss of some or all of the fingers on his left hand, Groth said he was “very fortunate” a doctor for infectious diseases was at the hospital and that an orthopedic surgeon asked him to see the patient with the bad hand. The antibiotics started immediately.

Photo 2

Color photographs of his hand show the distortion, the discolored fingers and the cuts needed to drain the hand being attacked by a bug from the marsh. The infection was stopped but not without casualties.

Groth said he is coping with the amputation of his fingers. He and his wife said he is fine mentally. Physically, he coached fall baseball a few months ago, went hunting in the fall and early winter, and is back on the job.

“He’s handled it well. He has made it through and can do everything he was doing before with the fingers he has left,” she said.

“I found it inconvenient but it doesn’t stop me from doing anything,” Groth said. Well, he confessed later during a meeting at Stone Energy, 625 Kaliste Saloom Road in Lafayette, he does have trouble buttoning the cuff on the right sleeve of his shirts.

“I haven’t had a chance to go back fishing. I certainly intend to,” he said.

Since that midsummer nightmare, he and his wife have engrossed themselves in learning more about Vibrio vulnificus. The Groths, who also have a daughter, Heather, 27, got information from the state and off the Internet.

“It sure is a bad little bug,” he said. “Six people I know of first-hand have come in contact with the bug since I did. Four of those people died and one is in bad shape with liver problems because of the bug. You really don’t stand a chance if you have an immune problem. He’s in bad shape. (But) he lived. And me.

“I just hope nobody else gets this stuff down there (around the dams at Marsh Island, or anywhere else along coastal Louisiana). It’s very easy to contract in the summertime. So many people go to the dam and cast net on any given day. They don’t have any idea what it is.

“Another interesting thing to come out of it is a lot of cases are reported around the Barataria area. There is a significant number of cases reported there every year.”

In 1998, according to figures released in the Infectious Disease Epidemiology Annual Report, there were 11 cases reported in Jefferson and Terrebonne parishes and seven in Orleans Parish. In 1997, the largest numbers were reported in Orleans Parish (1), Jefferson Parish (7), Terrebonne Parish (5) and Calcasieu Parish (3). In 1996, it was Plaquemines (8), East Feliciana (5) and Terrebonne (4), according to reports filed with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A total of 937 cases of confirmed Vibrio illnesses were reported to the Department of Health & Human Services’ Vibrio Surveillance System in 1997 and 1998, with 389 from five Gulf Coast states (Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas) and 548 from 26 other states. Of 46 deaths, 41 died from Vibrio vulnificus.

The one case of Vibrio vulnificus Groth remembers most vividly is the one that got him that afternoon on Marsh Island. Hopefully, he said, others can benefit from his experience by knowing what’s out there and guarding against the invisible killer.

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