RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - Like most people in the Richmond area, Charles Ballard Jr. and his dad Charles Ballard Sr. didn't give it a second thought when it comes to wading in the ocean. That would prove to be a mistake.
While fishing in Virginia Beach on June 11, both Charles Sr. and Jr. got tiny cuts on their feet from stepping on jagged rocks. Three days later, Charles Sr. saw those cuts become open sores. He was rushed to Chippenham hospital, where he was diagnosed with a rare, flesh-eating bacteria - Vibrio Vulnificus.
If not treated within five days, it's almost always fatal.
Doctors didn't pull any punches when telling him what to expect. The possibilities were frightening.
"Dying or losing a leg, or them having to cut it off, below the knee, preferably," said Ballard Sr. "I was kinda prepared for it."
Dr. Gonzalo Bearman is the Chair of the Division of Infectious Diseases at VCU Medical Center, where they only see about one or two Vibrio cases a year. In the last ten years, he's treated fewer than 13 cases.
Typically, the water in Virginia Beach is too cold for Vibrio to take hold. The flesh-eating bacteria thrives in warm brackish water and is far more common along the Gulf Coast states. North of Maryland, it's almost non-existent.
Although rare, it should never be taken lightly.
"It can cause a really aggressive inflammation and breakdown of the skin, the soft tissue, the fat, and sometimes the covering of the muscles of the body," said Bearman.
The turning point for Charles Sr. came at the Wound Center at Chippenham Hospital - and a process called Pulse Lavage. It's hydrotherapy that uses a pressurized, pulsed solution to irrigate and separate the dead tissue.
After two weeks in the hospital, Charles Jr. said he saw steady improvement in his dad's condition.
"I was there every day when they dressed his wounds," he said. "I could see that he was healing on a daily basis."
Charles Sr. had a compromised immune system long before he went on that fishing trip. It's that previous condition that put him at risk. For the vast majority of the populous, Vibrio Vulnificus in Virginia waters is not something you should worry about.
People who should take extra caution are those being treated for cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, Hepatitis and anyone with a compromised immune system.
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