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A Texas man who nearly died after contracting a flesh-eating bacteria while out in Hurricane Harvey floodwaters is urging people now dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Irma to be extremely careful if they come into contact with floodwaters in their own towns.
“Make sure you do everything you can to protect yourself,” J.R. Atkins, 39, tells PEOPLE. “If you’re not protected, don’t go out there.”
Some residents of Florida, South Carolina and Georgia are now experiencing flooding in the wake of Hurricane Irma and Atkins says, “floodwater carries a lot of bad things.”
Atkins, of Missouri City, Texas, got necrotizing fasciitis, commonly called a flesh-eating bacteria, on Aug. 29 while paddling in his canoe trying to help neighbors as floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey swamped their subdivision, he says.
He was “on the door” of death and hospitalized for 10 days but says his medical knowledge from working as a firefighter and paramedic saved his life because he recognized the symptoms and quickly sought emergency care, Atkins says. The condition is fatal in more than 25 percent of cases.
Atkins and his neighbors had been under a mandatory evacuation order but after he learned that more than half from the area weren’t leaving, including several elderly people,
“I got really concerned for their safety,” he says. “I decided to stick around. No one else here was medically trained except for me.”
As waters continued rising during the hurricane and after, he boarded his canoe to see who needed food, medicine or other help. He donned rain boots, waterproof pants and a jacket but no gloves because he didn’t have open wounds on his hands and wasn’t planning to get out of the boat, he says.
At some point, however, an insect bit his hand — which he didn’t realize at the time — and his hand dipped into the floodwater as he was paddling, he says. The tiny opening left by the bug was enough to allow in water contaminated with Strep A, one of the bacterium that can cause necrotizing fasciitis, he says.
By the next morning, his hand and arm were red and the swelling was “spreading very aggressively,” he says. “I need to go the hospital right now,” he told his wife, Cori. With 80 patients ahead of him, he waited several hours but was immediately taken into the emergency department after he said he couldn’t feel his pinky finger anymore, he says.
The following 10 days in the hospital included five days in the Intensive Care Unit, three surgeries, tenuous moments when his blood pressure dropped precipitously, septic shock and an instance when “they put shock pads on me in case I coded in the elevator,” Atkins says.
With the bacteria “eating away the inside of my wrist and arm and hand,” doctors were concerned it would cause even worse internal destruction.
“They told my wife this has been a life-threatening and limb-threatening situation,” he says.
Atkins, however, improved and was released on Saturday. He still has some numbness in his hand but said he expects to fully recover with no lasting damage. He plans to return to work in a few weeks as a manager at an oil and gas company, a job he took after leaving firefighting.
Now he wants to make sure no one else suffers his same fate. “You want to stay dry,” he says. “Completely cover your skin with waterproof clothes and make sure any open wounds are sealed with material that water cannot penetrate,” he says. In addition to Strep A, floodwaters can contain E. coli and other toxins.
Equally important, Atkins says, is to wear a mask during the clean-up to avoid water droplets or mist. “No one wants flesh-eating bacteria in their lungs,” he says.