Man Loses Leg to Flesh-Eating Bacteria After Wading in the Gulf of Mexico

Zach Motal thought he broke his foot after a swim in the Gulf of Mexico.

ByABC News
May 7, 2015, 5:30 PM

— -- Zach Motal said he went for a walk in the surf along the Gulf of Mexico about a month ago with a small cut on his toe inside his boot.

Eleven hours later, the 46-year-old Fort Meyers, Florida, carpenter was in excruciating pain, he told ABC News. Doctors learned he had necrotizing fasciitis, commonly known as the "flesh-eating infection" that kills tissue as it spreads. It's caused by several different types of bacteria, but Motal's infection tested positive for group A streptococcus, his doctor told ABC News.

When he went to the hospital, crying because he was in so much pain, he said he thought his foot was broken.

"I figured they were going to put a cast on me and tell me to go home," Motal told ABC News. "I would never in a million years imagine I had a flesh-eating bacteria in me."

After seven surgeries to cut out the infected flesh, doctors had to amputate Motal's leg below the knee, he said. He said he had 2,500 stitches in his leg, and said at times, it looked like something out of a "horror movie."

Necrotizing fasciitis is caused by one of several different kinds of bacteria, including vibrio vulnificus, which is typically found in the water, but that's not what Motal had, said Dr. Pranav Shah, an infectious disease specialist at Lee Memorial Hospital, where Motal has been receiving care for the last three-and-a-half weeks. Motal said he blames his walk in the Gulf for contracting the infection, but Shah said he could have gotten the group A streptococcus from anywhere.

Shah said Motal also had diabetes, which might have been a complicating factor. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most people who come down with necrotizing fasciitis have underlying conditions like diabetes, which make it harder for the body to fight off the infection.

Necrotizing fasciitis grows between the muscle and the skin, but often isn't visible even to doctors until it's already begun to spread significantly, said Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, and has never met Motal. It can be fatal especially once it spreads to the blood stream, so normal treatment is aggressive surgeries and antibiotics, Schaffner said.

Motal said he hopes to move to a rehabilitation hospital soon. He recently learned that a company will be giving him a new prosthetic leg for free.

"I just keep on keepin' on," he said. "Something inside me just says don't give up, man."