It was still morning on July 2 when Angel Perez returned home with a haul of crabs freshly snagged from the Maurice River at Matt’s Landing, New Jersey. The next day, his right leg was swollen. Then it turned red and broke out in blisters.
“He’s had issues with Parkinson’s disease already, so we hear complaints like that already — we’re used to them,” says his daughter Dilena Perez-Dilan. “But he was like, ‘This is different.’”
Doctors first thought it was a minor bacterial infection (Parkinson’s disease can undermine one’s immune system). On a second trip to the emergency room, doctors diagnosed cellulitis. It was when the redness and blistering began migrating to Perez’s other leg that they began to suspect a flesh-eating bacteria known as vibrio necrotizing fasciitis.
About 80,000 people get some form of vibriosis every year, usually from eating raw or undercooked shellfish. But an unlucky few get a life-threatening strain that enters an open sore and can make its way into the bloodstream.
Peak infection time is from May to October when fishing waters are warmest — the peak crabbing season at Matt’s Landing, where the 60-year-old Perez has spent a considerable chunk of time since his Parkinson’s forced him into retiring from owning a used car dealership.
“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. “Aggressive attention should be given to the wound site; for patients with wound infections, amputation of the infected limb is sometimes necessary.”
Perez’s hands and most of his forearms have since been amputated. While doctors are optimistic that his life is no longer in danger, they fear he could still lose his feet and legs.
It has been an emotionally torturous ordeal for the family: Perez-Dilan says that pessimistic nurses told her earlier in the week there “was no turnaround” for her dad. “It’s not like it’s a robber that did this to him and you can go, ‘Put him in jail.’ 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?”
As for how Perez is handling the crisis, Perez-Dilan said her father is staying strong. “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.’
“He has to get these procedures to get what he wants, which is life.”