- Bobby Osteen contracted a serious bacterial infection near Galveston, Texas seven years ago.
- His wife, Loretta, called 911 when his leg began to turn black.
- Seven years later, Osteen has largely recovered but is still weak, he said.
Bobby and Loretta Osteen loved the ocean – they were avid scuba divers living on a canal near Galveston, Texas. But their time in the water ended seven years ago when Bobby, who was 70 at the time, came home one day with leg pain.
“I didn’t think anything about it,” Bobby told Insider.
Bobby tried to fall asleep, but after four hours his leg was swelling, blistering and turning black. Loretta insisted on calling 911, despite her husband’s reluctance to seek treatment.
“I was trying to respect him, but at the same time I knew something was wrong,” she said. “I knew it wasn’t normal.”
When the ambulance arrived, the paramedics didn’t seem particularly worried. But when Bobby arrived at the emergency room of the University of Texas Medical Branch, infectious disease specialist Dr. Alfred Scott Lea was immediately alarmed.
Lea diagnosed Bobby with a vibrio infection, which is usually contracted by eating undercooked seafood, but can also occur when someone with a cut enters salt water. That’s probably what happened to Bobby, who had a small cut on his foot at the time and was on his dock.
The CDC reports that there are approximately 80,000 cases per year of vibrio infections. The Texas State Department of Health Services says species that can cause vibrio infections occur naturally in coastal marine waters in the United States and can be especially found during the warmer months.
Bobby’s infection had progressed to necrotizing fasciitis, more commonly known as flesh-eating disease.
Doctors thought they should amputate
Soon surgeons came to Bobby’s bedside, using a Sharpie to outline where they might need to amputate his leg. It was a shock to Bobby, who was in and out of consciousness.
“My jaw hit the ground,” he said. “Amputation was by no means on my radar.”
Loretta was also amazed. “I kept saying, ‘No, no, no. This man is active,'” she recalls.
Before having surgery, Bobby told doctors to only take his leg if there was no other option to save his life.
As the surgery stretched out, Loretta had hope
While Bobby was in surgery, Loretta waited and waited. As the hours passed, her hope grew.
“If you amputate, it will be quite simple,” she said. “When it took longer, I thought they were saving his leg.”
When Bobby emerged, he had his two legs and his life. The doctors told Loretta that if she had waited another hour, Bobby would probably be dead.
Coming out of surgery was the start of a long recovery
Although Bobby was able to keep his leg, his life had changed. He remained in a coma for 25 days in intensive care. Because much of his leg tissue had to be removed, he had skin grafts and reconstruction normally reserved for burn victims. After that, there were two months of inpatient rehabilitation.
The whole process took much longer than Bobby had anticipated. He said his health never returned to what it was before the infection.
“My leg is basically fully recovered, but my body never regained its strength,” he said. “When you come out of that, the muscles have deteriorated to the point that they’re no longer functional.”
Today, Bobby is not as active as before. Although he still enjoys looking at the water in the canal in his garden, he no longer goes in salt water. He credits University of Texas Medical Branch surgeons Lea and Loretta with saving his life.
“I owe my wife a debt that I can never repay,” he said. “I know it, and luckily she knows it too.”
Now they’re sharing their story in hopes of helping others get medical help sooner, especially for infections like Vibrio.