By Chris McCullough
A trucker has told how he was minutes away from losing his life as he watched his leg turn black before his eyes because of flesh eating bugs.
Antrim trucker Colin Smyth, who drives a lorry around local farms collecting milk, went to bed early on Monday, April 17, and started feeling very cold and "shivery" no matter how many blankets his wife Linda-Jane threw on him.
That cold feeling turned into a sickness with vomiting and at 3.30am Colin became very thirsty sinking three pints of water into him while at the same time wondering what was going on as he had severe pains in his left leg.
Approaching 6am Linda-Jane decided to call the doctor on call as Colin was getting progressively worse. As luck would have it Colin’s own GP was on call and arrived at the house at 8am.
As nothing was visible on Colin’s leg the doctor gave him two shots of morphine for the pain but what was to happen next shook the entire Smyth family as Colin came within minutes of losing his life.
“The pain was excruciating,” said Colin. “I usually have a very high pain threshold but this was unreal.
“The doctor called for an ambulance immediately which took me up the road to the Antrim Hospital. Nothing was visible on my leg but as the doctors were examining me my leg started to turn black from the ankle up, literally before my eyes.
“The surgeon, Dr Whiteside, told me I had to have immediate surgery, first to save my life, and secondly to save my leg.”
Colin, 44, was rushed into surgery immediately where surgeons opened up his leg to uncover the deadly flesh eating bugs, or Necrotizing Fasciitis in medical terms, had eaten a good chunk of his leg around the calf area.
What the doctors found can only be described as ‘a bloody mess’ or indeed as a ‘bad pizza topping’ as some have called it.
Colin woke up again from the surgery on a ventilator and in intensive care. At first glance of the clock on the wall he thought it was Tuesday evening but it was actually Thursday morning. Colin had been under an induced coma for almost two days and had not realised what was wrong with him.
“When I woke up and looked around me I assumed it was Tuesday evening. No one had told me what had happened.
“The doctors put me in an induced coma to operate on my leg. When I woke up I looked down and could only see my toes. I was able to wiggle them and it was only then I knew my leg was still attached!
“The doctors saved my life. If I had of been an hour later under the knife, or if I had of went to wait in casualty, I wouldn’t have made it!
“The medical staff wanted my wife to tell me what had happened because I had no idea. I couldn’t feel my left leg around the calf area even though I could wiggle my toes. My leg was bandaged from ankle to hip.
“Surgeons had removed a lot of the tissue, nerves and two tendons from my calf hence why I had no feeling there.
“They told me the operation had been carried out in the nick of time as the bacterium was rapidly moving through my body looking for a main blood vein.
“If it had found that, the bacteria, or bugs, would have spread into my main organs and that would have been goodnight!
“Those doctors saved my life. I went to bed one night in April and am lucky I can still go to bed today.”
In fact, Colin’s body was closing down and he was put onto a kidney dialysis machine to keep him going through surgery.
He has an existing skin disorder and is diabetic but none of these contributed to him contracting Necrotizing Fasciitis. His immune system was fighting an infection, but not the infection that was threatening his life.
There is no exact reason as to why Colin was infected by the bacteria. Doctors think it could have been present in his leg for a week before he was rushed to hospital.
The flesh eating bugs can exist just under the skin where they can rapidly spread. They can enter the body by any number of reasons but one theory suggested by the doctors was that a spider could have bitten Colin.
“I don’t recall being bitten, but that’s just a theory. Bad bacteria can enter the body by a number of ways if your skin is punctured somehow.”
Colin lay in the Antrim Area Hospital for three weeks after his surgery before being moved to the Ulster Hospital to receive a skin graft on his wound.
Specialists shaved skin from the top of his leg to cover the wound but the first attempt failed. Luckily for Colin, the second surgery was a success.
“I can tell you having a skin graft is very sore indeed. You wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy. The first attempt didn’t hold and I told the doctors to make sure the second one did as it was just too painful having skin shaved from one part of your leg to be sown on another part.
“I have to say the care I received in both the Antrim Hospital and the Ulster Hospital was tremendous. The doctors and all the medical staff were very caring and helpful,” he said.
Colin now wears a compression sock, walks with a limp and attends occupational therapy sessions to help with his leg movements. He never will be able to have any feeling around the wound as the tendons and tissue are gone.
He is on the mend and hopes to return to work very soon.
However, the trauma of it all still comes back to haunt him.
“I went to the shower one evening and was dressing myself when I saw my leg in the mirror.
“I am 44 years old but am not afraid to admit I burst out in tears. My wife couldn’t understand what was wrong with me.
“I just told her I wanted the leg removed as I couldn’t bear to look at it any more.
“On my next visit to the doctor I told him the same thing, but he assured me this was just the trauma talking and he arranged some counselling should I need it.”
Colin is very thankful to his wife Linda-Jane and family for all their ongoing support through his tough time. There have been four other similar cases treated in the Antrim Area Hospital this year.
“It was too close! I was almost a goner! My wife was very quick to react that morning in calling the doctor. I am a very lucky man.”
As a consequence of his surgery Colin has been banned from flying for a year so his holiday plans have been put on hold for now.