LUMBERTON — A 56-year-old Robeson County man has died from a flesh-eating bacteria that he apparently became exposed to while on a fishing trip.
Charles Curtis Hardin, of 2329 Hardin Farm Road, Fairmont, worked as the assistant director of Solid Waste and was in his 28th year of employment with the county. He died on Tuesday at Southeastern Regional Medical Center.
The bacteria, which is not contagious, is present in warm salt water and entered Hardin’s body through an open wound on his leg, according to Dr. Obiefuna Okoye, of Carolina Infectious Disease Specialists.
“According to the history we got, he went fishing almost every weekend,” Okoye said. “He had an open wound on his leg that got exposed to the bacteria while he was fishing out in the sea water.”
In an obituary published in today’s The Robesonian, fishing is called Hardin’s “favorite pastime.”
The bacteria, Vibrio vulnificis, can cause an infection of the skin when open wounds are exposed to warm seawater; these infections may lead to skin breakdown and ulceration, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and to septicemia, a whole-body inflammatory state that occurs as the body tries to fight.
Okoye said that when Hardin arrived in the medical center’s Emergency Department on July 30 with complaints of abdominal pain and large blisters on his legs, the infection had already spread significantly.
“He was very sick — he was septic,” he said. “He had low blood pressure, his kidneys were shutting down, and his heart rate was very high. The infection had gotten into his bloodstream at that time.”
Once the bacteria is in the blood stream, chances of mortality rises to 50 percent, according to Okoye. Infected patients are admitted to the Intensive Care Unit and given antibiotics and fluids, he said.
“The nature of the organism can be aggressive,” Okoye said. “… Timing of his presentation may have also been a factor.”
Okoye said this was the third case of the infection he has encountered in his career. Only one of the patients he encountered with the disease survived. Amanda Crabtree, a spokesman for SRMC, said it was the third case at the medical center since 2010, and in two of the cases the patient died.
Fairmont Mayor Charles Kemp, who met Hardin while working as a freshman adviser at Fairmont High School in 1970, said he was “deeply saddened” by Hardin’s death, and that Hardin was a “very warm, friendly, give-you-the-shirt-off-his-back kind of guy.”
“It really makes us take a deep look at our humanity,” Kemp said. “If a scratch or small wound can take somebody from us in this short amount of time, we really need to be aware of our surroundings and what we do with our bodies.
“He was a member of a very special group of kids that graduated in 1974,” he said. “He and I talked and joked around a lot, and I followed his career and life for the last 40 years.
“He always made you smile … he always did make me smile, I know that,” Kemp said.
Okoye said the disease can be avoided by wearing protective clothing when handling raw oysters or shellfish, and making sure shellfish are fully cooked before eating. He said people should avoid exposure of open wounds or broken skin to warm salt water.
Hardin’s case is one of many that have come to light in recent months.
— Aimee Copeland, a 24-year-old West Georgia University student, is in recovery after losing her left leg, right foot and both hands to the disease. She contracted the disease after a May 1 zip-line accident left her with a deep gash in her leg. Okoye said Copeland’s infection was caused by Group A streptococcus.
— Anthony Hills, 55, of Charleston, died on Aug. 4, hours after he was rushed to the Medical University of South Carolina with symptoms of the disease. It is unclear how he contracted the disease.
— Lana Kuykendall, a 36-year-old Greenville, S.C., woman who contracted the disease in May while giving birth to twins, has been released after undergoing a total of 20 operations to halt the spread of the bacteria.
— Louise Thompson, a grandmother also from Greenville, is recovering from surgery after she was diagnosed with the life-threatening disease in June. Doctors had to remove a football-sized chunk of tissue from her leg.
— Barry Ginn, of Hilton Head Island, S.C., underwent nine surgeries in May after doctors discovered the bacteria in his collarbone and left shoulder. The 59-year-old is currently recovering.