Angel Perez arrived at the river before sunrise, beating the other crabbers on the hunt at Matt’s Landing in New Jersey, a popular spot for the crustaceans near where the Maurice River meets the Delaware Bay.
It was still morning on July 2 when he returned home with a haul of freshly-snagged crabs and, unknown to him at the time, something much worse.
By July 3, his right leg was swollen. Then it turned red and broke out in blisters.
“He had issues with Parkinson’s disease already, so we hear complaints like that already. We’re used to them,” his daughter, Dilena Perez-Dilan, told the Washington Post. “But he was like ‘this is different.’ ”
Doctors at an urgent care facility first thought it was a minor bacterial infection. On a second trip to a hospital’s emergency room, doctors diagnosed cellulitis. It wasn’t until the third trip – with the redness and blistering migrating to Perez’s other leg – that they began to suspect the potentially fatal ailment at the root of his symptoms: A flesh eating bacteria known as Vibrio.
The brackish places where rivers meet seas are also a prime habitat for Vibrio. Some of the bacteria had apparently found an open sore or a cut on Perez’s ankle.
Just three days later, the bacteria had spread, threatening his limbs and his life.
Since then he’s been at a hospital with a 24-hour, on-call anesthesiologist, ready in case he needed emergency surgery. Dozens of family members have stopped into his room in the intensive care unit.
About 80,000 people get some form of vibriosis every year, usually from eating raw or undercooked shellfish, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For most, the worst symptoms are diarrhea and vomiting.
But a few unlucky people get a life-threatening strand that can enter an open sore and make its way to a person’s bloodstream, wreaking havoc.
“The bacterium can invade the bloodstream, causing a severe and life-threatening illness with symptoms like fever, chills, decreased blood pressure (septic shock) and blistering skin lesions,” according to the Florida Department of Health’s vibriosis page. “Aggressive attention should be given to the wound site; for patients with wound infections, amputation of the infected limb is sometimes necessary.”
Peak infection time is when the water is warmest, from May to October. Those months are also peak crabbing season at Matt’s Landing, where Perez had spent a considerable chunk of time after being forced into retirement by illness.
Perez was born in Puerto Rico, where he grew up with an affinity for cars, doing street mechanic repair jobs for friends and family.
He brought his skills with him when he came to the U.S. mainland in the 1980s, then took formal classes to become an auto mechanic. In 1989, he opened a used car dealership. That was also the year his daughter was born.
Perez-Dilan said she grew up around cars in various states of repair and restoration. She remembered her father helping people locate a part for a quick repair or sending them off in a used car. He used the money he made to help support the family members who followed him from Puerto Rico.
Things changed in 2006, when Perez began to show the first signs of Parkinson’s disease. He had always been active, a man who’d built a better life with his hands. Now he could no longer trust them.
But they could still handle crabs at Matt’s Landing, so he threw himself into his new hobby. He usually arrived before dawn, frequently with a family member or two in tow. The children would splash in the water, the adults would get quality time with the family patriarch.
By Tuesday, more than 80 members of Perez’s family had streamed into his hospital room. He has visible signs of infection in all four limbs. The bacteria doesn’t appear to be in his bloodstream, his daughter said Tuesday morning, but that doesn’t mean it’s not in his muscles and skin, or that it has stopped spreading.
Still, he’s keeping a positive attitude for his family.
“He’s praising God,” Perez-Dilan said. “And he’s saying ‘I’m going to fight. I’m going to fight. I’m going to fight.’ ”
She’s following his optimistic lead – at least at the hospital.
“When I got home one night, it just kind of came out, because it’s not like it’s a robber that did this to him and you can go, ‘Put him in jail,’ ” she said. “I want to blame someone or blame something. But I can’t because this is Mother Nature. How can you get mad at a body of water?”
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