Four weeks after the storm, Hurricane Harvey’s destruction continues. A recent victim of the super storm is a 77-year-old woman who encountered flesh-eating bacteria inside a home near Houston, according to the Harris County Institute of Forensic Science.
Nancy Reed — Harris County’s 36th fatality related to the storm — died on September 15.
Necrotizing fasciitis is the cause of Reed’s death recorded by the medical examiner. Complications in the form of an infected wound followed an accidental fall that resulted in “blunt trauma of an upper extremity,” the report indicates.
“She was in good health. She was very active,” said Mark Renn, associate pastor for missions and evangelism at First Presbyterian Church of Kingwood, where her memorial service was held.
When Reed contracted the bacterial disease from the contaminated waters, Renn explained, she was helping her son clear out his house and accidentally injured herself.
“She was in the ICU for two weeks,” said Renn. “She went into the hospital, she was making good progress, they thought they had treated the bacterial infection, and then just to find out one morning that she was gone.”
A widow, Reed worked as a community volunteer in Kingwood, a suburb of Houston, and president of the Reed Foundation, a philanthropic organization, according to her Rosewood Funeral Home obituary. She is survived by her son, John F. Reed, as well as her sister, niece, nephew, and numerous cousins.
‘Not strange or unique’
A serious skin infection, necrotizing fasciitis spreads quickly, destroying the body’s soft tissue, and can become lethal within a very short time, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, treatment with antibiotics can prevent death if diagnosed quickly. In some cases, surgery is needed to prevent the spread of this infection, which can be caused by more than one type of bacteria.
“The bacteria that caused necrotizing fasciitis are not strange or unique bacteria,” said Dr. David Persse, public health authority for the city of Houston. He explained these bacteria can live in swimming pools or natural bodies of water, and the flood waters, contaminated by sewage and fecal matter, just “happened to have more” bacteria than other bodies of water.
“Necrotizing fasciitis, the thing that is different about that is just how rapidly it spreads,” said Persse. Most people have had an infected wound at some point in their lives and seen the slight redness, indicating an infection, that surrounds it. “But necrotizing fasciitis, the way you know it is because that redness starts to spread — you will notice the change in just a couple of hours.”
While anyone could develop an infection from flesh-eating bacteria, the people at the highest risk are those with compromised immune systems, said Persse. This would include “people with diabetes, cancer patients, folks who have poorly controlled HIV disease, and the elderly because as we get old are immune systems are not as robust.”
Children, simply because they are more likely to be climbing around and get nicks and cuts, may also be in danger of developing an infection.
Good wound care is the best way to prevent any bacterial skin infection, according to Persse and the CDC. Keep open wounds covered with clean, dry bandages until healed and don’t delay first aid for even minor wounds, including blisters or any break in the skin. If you have an open wound, avoid spending time in water that is not related to bathing. Wash your hands often with soap and water, as well.
“If you’re worried or just want to be super attentive, take a ballpoint pen and draw a line between where the skin is red and the normal skin and mark down the time. Two hours later, mark it again. If it’s moved a half an inch or more, you need to go” to the hospital, he said.
“Most of our contaminated waters are gone, they receded and we had some rain to flush out the bayous and stuff,” said Persse. “But it’s the trash at the end of the driveway along the curb that is still soaked with that same contaminated water.”
Renn said, “it’s been a long four weeks.”
At first the folks in Kingwood, a neighborhood less hard hit than some others, gave thanks “that nobody directly died in the flood. Meaning no one drowned, no one was abandoned in their house,” said Renn.
“But in the two weeks following the flood, we lost three older members of our church,” said Renn. He believes they were already in poor health and then succumbed to heart attacks brought on by the stress. “We can look back and say the flood probably caused their deaths even though they were not immediate drownings or injuries.”
Today, most homes have been cleared out. “We literally demolished the bottom 4 feet of entire houses,” said Renn. “If it was in the water — and most of these houses had 3 to 4 feet of water in them — it had to go because of all the contaminants in the water.”
“There was all that talk about the ‘danger of the water’ and ‘don’t be in this water’ as we mucked out houses for the better part of three weeks and we were ripping out carpet and flopping around wet insulation and stuff,” said Renn. He added that a lot of people get cuts and injuries doing this type of labor.
Reed’s death was “really, really hard,” said Renn. “It really opened a lot of people eyes to [the fact that] this is serious stuff we are dealing with and the water does not just smell, it’s full of sewage and deadly bacteria and all this kind of stuff.”
“Nancy was a very special lady,” said Renn. “She was one of those women that I never heard her complain about anything. She saw the bright side of most things, she was encouraging.”
Hers was a life well-lived, he said.