Napier man’s fight against flesh-eating disease necrotising fasciitis

Napier man Carl Drinkwater’s legs felt like they weighed “100 kilograms each” after a day labouring in an orchard.

Little did he know a day later he would be put into a five-day medically induced coma as surgeons removed flesh from his body to keep him alive.

Drinkwater’s first trip to the emergency department on May 8 didn’t pick up what he was diagnosed with later that day – a rare flesh-eating disease called necrotising fasciitis.

Blood and urine samples were taken along with x-rays and a CT scan, but they didn’t yield obvious results and he went home with painkillers.

Drinkwater, who has no qualms about his initial treatment because of how hard the disease is to pick up, then deteriorated further.

A friend eventually told him to “stop being a hard man and go back to hospital”, and an ambulance was called.

“I woke up five days later.”

Necrotising fasciitis is a potentially deadly disease, which occurs when bacteria infects the body through an open wound like a cut or scrape.

Epidemiologist and Professor of Public Health at Otago University Dr Michael Baker said recent studies suggest there are about 50 cases a year in New Zealand.

This equates to about two cases per 100,000 people per year – the Hawke’s Bay District Health Board estimates the region has a population of more than 176,000.

Drinkwater has no idea what caused the disease and Baker said it was not uncommon for the cause to remain unknown.

“Sometimes it will be a minor little wound. Several bacteria can cause it.”

Baker said necrotising fasciitis has a mortality rate of about 25 per cent, while more than half of patients were admitted to ICU and about 14 per cent of people had amputations.

“It is a very serious illness.”

During the five days Drinkwater was in a coma, he underwent several operations with three surgeons working at a time to cut away the infected flesh.

A surgeon later told Drinkwater “he looked a dead man”.

“It’s nasty. People lose limbs.”

The infection was largely confined to Drinkwater’s lower half. He now has deep scars on both sides of his legs from the thigh down to calf, along with a 15cm scar on his back.

He’s also adjusting to life with a stoma bag.

Drinkwater weighed 98kg before entering the hospital. He weighed 81kg when he woke up.

“I was lucky I was five kilos overweight.”

After close to eight weeks in hospital he returned home four weeks ago and has been slowly recovering and working at “getting stronger”.

He said he’s come a “bloody long way” which he attributes to a strong family line – “the whole family’s like that”.

The martial arts instructor is hoping togo skiing in October this year and has even bought new ski pants.

“I eat black belts for breakfast,” he said.

Drinkwater said it could happen to anyone, regardless of their fitness.

“You’ve got to be careful. You are fighting for your life.”

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