When a leaky trash bag brushed his ankle during cleanup at his daughter's kindergarten class picnic two years ago, Doug Murphy initially thought nothing of it. But bacteria that entered through his ankle created a flesh-eating infection that nearly cost him his right leg – and his life.
By the next morning, he noticed "a black mark, about the size of a quarter" that he dismissed as a spider bite, located where fluid from the leaky bag had seeped through his sock. By the second morning, his temperature was 105, he couldn't stand and the black area had expanded to "the size of a pineapple. You would be scared it if was you," Murphy recalled Wednesday.
At a nearby emergency room, a savvy infectious disease specialist who examined him "thought it might be necrotizing fasciitis," better known as a flesh-eating bacterial infection. That's about the last thing Murphy remembers. He was admitted to intensive care and placed on powerful antibiotics. His kidneys began shutting down, his blood pressure sank and his temperature soared to 107.7 as the infection spread beyond the leg and throughout his bloodstream, causing sepsis. He began hallucinating and was convinced "I was invited to Brad and Angie's secret wedding in L.A."
His temperature hovered at 107.7 for days, breaking just as doctors were planning to amputate his right leg. Murphy remained hospitalized a total of six weeks before he was released with a gaping leg wound that took a year to heal. The leg, he says, looked "like you poured acid on it and it dissolved down like in [the movie] 'Alien.'"
Today, the 45-year-old father of two from Brooklyn, N.Y., says his scarred right leg doesn't hold him back as an operator of academic summer camps, or as singer-songwriter for his country-rock band. However, the infection badly damaged lymph nodes in the leg, which swells each day and must be elevated in the evenings.
Murphy was infected with Group A streptococcus, which can live harmlessly on the skin or cause a strep throat, but is also the leading cause of flesh-eating bacterial infections. They also can be caused by several other organisms, including aeromonas hydrophila, staphylococcus aureus and vibrio vulnificus. Aimee Copeland, a 24-year-old Georgia student, lost her leg almost two weeks ago to an aeromonas infection contracted in a zip line accident, and Lana Kuykendall, a paramedic from South Carolina, continues to battle a flesh-eating infection that developed soon after she delivered twins.
Murphy is among survivors who have shared their stories with the National Necrotizing Fasciitis Foundation, founded by Donna Batdorff of Grand Rapids, Mich., and Jacqueline Roemmele of Watchung, N.J., who lived through similar infections and now try to help fellow survivors and patients navigate through the care and complications associated with a condition that kills one in four patients, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.