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Nacogdoches-area man in fight for his life vs. bacteria

The Daily Sentinel
Thursday, July 19, 2007

NACOGDOCHES - A little over a week ago, Steve Gilpatrick was enjoying a vacation with his family on the beach in Galveston and fishing in the Gulf of Mexico.

Today, he's fighting for his life in a Galveston hospital after being exposed to a flesh-eating bacteria while swimming and fishing at Crystal Beach on the Bolivar Peninsula.

The 58-year-old Nacogdoches County resident was diagnosed with necrotizing fascitis three days after he had been wading in the water on July 8 . A diabetic, doctors believe the bacterium that causes the disease, Vibrio vulnificus, entered his body through an unhealed wound on his leg.

"We thought the wound had pretty well healed," his wife, Linda, said Wednesday. "He was only in ankle-deep water for about 30 minutes, and the doctors are saying that is how Steve got it."

The Blackjack community resident is in critical condition Wednesday at UTMB in Galveston.

According to Dr. Robert Stewart, an associate professor of biology at SFA and a clinical microbiologist, said the disease is uncommon, because most healthy immune systems are able to fight it off. Because Gilpatrick is diabetic, the disease was able to overcome his more vulnerable immune system.

"It's a marine organism with a cell membrane that has a toxin that causes a loss in blood pressure," Stewart said. "That drop in pressure can cause the body's organs not to work effectively."

In Steve's case, the disease has spread to his blood and is causing organ failure, in addition to the damage done to his leg.

"We have seen a little improvement, and doctors are thinking they might save his leg," Linda said. "He is still not able to communicate with us. He's not looking directly at us and not responding to us or squeezing our hand."

Stewart said in treating the flesh-eating bacteria, doctors must be aggressive in removing all the dead tissue and administer high dosages of antibiotics.

The doctors at UTMB have already done that in several surgeries, Linda said.

They didn't hesitate a minute and attacked this from the beginning," she added, describing how his leg had been "completely stripped of all flesh," from foot to upper thigh.

Doctors may start a series of skin grafts to re-cover the area where the skin had to be removed, Linda said.

Murray Wall of San Augustine, Linda Gilpatrick's brother-in-law, said she was staying strong through her husband's ordeal.

"It's been really hard on her," Wall said. "But she is doing as well as she can, and we are doing everything we can to help her through this.

"My wife (Linda's sister) just went back down there today, and we sent our motorhome so Linda would have a place to stay," Wall said.

Wall and his family were with the Gilpatricks at Crystal Beach when Steve first started showing signs that something was wrong.

It's a trip that the Wall and the Gilpatricks make as part of a group of about 20 family members, every year, usually without incident.

"We were thinking he'd be back (from the hospital) by that afternoon," Wall said. "We never would have thought it would be this bad."

Linda said her husband's illness started with minor symptoms.

"Between midnight and 1 a.m. on the (July) 11th, he was really cold and was running a fever," Linda said. "By the morning, his leg was extremely red and hot, so we decided to go to a clinic in Galveston for the infection."

By 4 p.m., Linda said he was in the hospital being treated for the flesh-eating disease.

Complicating matters, doctors discovered that in addition to the diabetes, Steve has a heart condition.

"They found a small hole in his heart," Wall said. "Every time he goes into surgery it's dangerous."

His treatment has required several blood transfusions, and Linda said it would be helpful if blood donations could be made in his name.

The doctors at UTMB have told Linda that Steve will be hospitalized for at least a month.

Linda said the hospital staff has been "wonderful" throughout the ordeal. She and daughter, Erin, an SFA student, have been surrounded by family and friends throughout Steve's treatment.

"Prayer has gotten us through this," Linda said. "We need all the prayers we can get."
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