HILTON HEAD ISLAND — By most accounts, Barry Ginn should be dead. Fortunately, the Hilton Head Island resident has several guardian angels watching out for him.
Ginn survived a rare bacterial infection that attacks soft tissue and muscle, often leading to amputation and, in some cases, death.
In February, Ginn had severe pain in his shoulder and a fever. He thought he had torn his rotator cuff again and went to the doctor.
Instead, he learned — nearly too late — that bacteria was ravaging his body, eating him from the inside out.
To save him, three doctors removed most of Ginn’s upper shoulder and a large portion of his upper arm. He underwent nine surgeries in four days.
Now, Ginn is trying to raise awareness about the infection, necrotizing fasciitis, and send a message of hope as a young Georgia woman fights for her life at an Augusta hospital.
“It kills you, and it kills you fast if you don’t catch it,” Ginn said.
He’s just now beginning to understand what happened to him.
“It’s about awareness,” Ginn said. “The odds are better of you winning the (lottery) than catching this flesh-eating bacteria. But guess what? I bought Powerball tickets and lost. But I did, however, get the flesh-eating infection. The biggest mistake I made was I wasn’t honest with myself or my doctors.
“If you suspect there’s something amiss, get to a doctor ... And if the skin is hot to the touch, something is going on and get to a good hospital ASAP. Don’t screw around.”
Ginn went to his primary doctor and described his symptoms, all consistent with a torn muscle in his shoulder. Three days later, a friend drove him to Savannah to consult a surgeon, who concurred.
The doctor advised Ginn to schedule a follow-up in two weeks.
On the way home, Ginn’s friend noticed he was sweating profusely. Ginn shrugged it off, thinking it was normal for someone with a torn rotator cuff.
Only now does he realize the fever caused by the infection affected his thinking. An emergency room attendant would later ask him if he was drunk.
His friend dropped him off at home. Another stopped by a few days later to find Ginn stumbling around his condo and called 911. Ginn was rushed to Hilton Head Hospital and then to MUSC.“I was dying,” he said. Once at MUSC, surgeons worked quickly to cut away dead tissue. In a brief moment of clarity, he said, he remembers telling his daughter: “Don’t let them take my arm, unless it’s life or death. If I die, cremate me, take my ashes and scatter them in the waters off Bear Island.”
The surgeons saved his arm. Doctors later told him they discovered he had an aggressive antibiotic-resistant staph infection and compromised immune system that likely brought about the necrotizing fasciitis.
He’s unsure how he got the infection.
Flesh-eating Aeromonas cases are considered extremely rare. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not keep statistics, and only a few cases have been reported in medical journals.
The most common form of flesh-eating bacteria is Group A streptococcus, the same bacteria that causes strep throat. There are various strains of the bacteria, some of which are more harmful than others. Under the right conditions, necrotizing fasciitis can occur, according to the National Necrotizing Fasciitis Foundation.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there are about 9,000 to 11,500 U.S. cases of Group A streptococcus each year. About 20 percent of the cases of necrotizing fasciitis are fatal, according to the CDC.
South Carolina health officials do not track cases of necrotizing fasciitis, but do track about 50 cases of Group A strep per year that could lead to the flesh-eating infection, according to Dr. Jerry Gibson, state epidemiologist.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.