Ala. man contracts flesh-eating bacteria from river

A day on the river turned into a dangerous medical condition for one man. (Source: Cassey Rutherford/WAFF/Gray News)
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FLORENCE, Ala. (WAFF/Gray News) - A man has been fighting for his life in the hospital after his wife says a day kayaking with their kids left him with a terrifying infection.

Cassey Rutherford has been by her husband’s bedside at the North Alabama Medical Center in Florence. Ricky Rutherford, 41, is in the intensive care unit.

“Yesterday, it was confirmed through the cultures they took that it was flesh-eating bacteria. It’s called necrotizing fasciitis,” she said.

The Waterloo couple has eight children, and they went kayaking last Saturday with their family and friends.

“We put in at Second Creek and we kayaked back to High Banks where there’s a swimming hole back there. It’s beautiful. We went swimming and then we got a storm. We waited it out and left,” Cassey Rutherford stated.

On Monday, Ricky Rutherford went to work and came home with a 103 temperature. His legs were also cramping, but he works in a warehouse, so he attributed his symptoms to being on his feet in the heat.

On Tuesday, he went back to work and could barely walk when he got home.

He noticed redness and swelling on his leg and he still had a fever. His wife was concerned about blood clots, so they went to the hospital.

At first, doctors said he had cellulitis. He got medication and went home and at 6:30 that next morning, he had a fever of 105.

His wife drew an outline around the area on his leg to see if the swelling and redness was spreading and it had, so they went back to the hospital.

On Friday, Ricky Rutherford went into surgery.

“They had to remove a five inch by six-inch piece of his inner thigh. At that time, they took cultures of what was going on in there,” Cassey Rutherford explained.

She says the cultures confirmed it was necrotizing fasciitis, a rare bacterial infection that spreads quickly in the body and can cause death.

Accurate diagnosis, rapid antibiotic treatment, and prompt surgery are important to stopping this infection, according to the CDC.

“It’s been up and down, touch and go. On Saturday, the doctors told me that they assumed by Saturday night that he would be on life support and that he was capable of dying. They told me to prepare for the worst,” Cassey Rutherford said.

Friends from their church came to the hospital and prayed over Ricky and thousands are following his wife’s updates on Facebook. The couple is appreciative of the support they’ve received during this difficult time.

“We’ve had people all over the world sharing our updates and praying. It’s just been amazing. He said to thank everyone for the prayers because that’s what working,” Cassey Rutherford added. “We received a great report that Ricky has gotten past the worst of things.”

She pointed out that her husband did not have any visible cuts, scratches or open wounds on his leg when he got in the water.

“There was nothing. But the doctors told us it could be a microscopic hole that it could come into and still spread like that. It’s hard to believe that there was a group of us and my husband, being the healthiest immune system there, got this. He’s never sick. He doesn’t even have a doctor. To know that he got that when the rest of us didn’t is insane,” Cassey Rutherford stated.

Their kids grew up going to that area on the river and she knows many families go to that spot all of the time to enjoy the outdoors. She wants others to be aware.

“I don’t want anyone else to go through this. On Saturday, I was having to think about burying the love of my life. No one should ever have to go through that,” Cassey Rutherford added. “Do not get in that water! It’s not safe. Don’t jeopardize your family for a day of fun. It’s right here in our backyard.”

Ricky Rutherford will have a long road to recovery, but he is eager to get back home and spend time with his children. He is under the care of infectious disease doctors and a team of other medical professionals.

Dr. Karen Landers, Medical Officer for the Northern/Northeastern Districts with the Alabama Department of Public Health, says Necrotizing Fascitis is an uncommon disease. However, when it occurs, it can be very serious, and prompt medical attention is necessary.

"Many organisms, including the common strep germ, can cause this disease. In the summer, and in persons exposed to brackish waters, we see the organism Vibrio vulnificus,” she said.

Landers did not have any specific information on the case of NF involving Ricky Rutherford as it is not a reportable disease to the health department.

Officials with the Alabama Department of Public Health shared the following tips:


  • If you have an open wound on your body, refrain from entering a body of water. It’s a way for pathogens to enter your body.

  • Don’t recreate where waterfowl gather, avoid areas that have a layer of scum, avoid stirring up the bottom when you wade.

  • As soon as practical when you get out of the water, rinse off with soap and water.

  • If you’ve been injured in the water, wash and disinfect the wound out and monitor it.

  • If it stays red and get hot and swells, go to the doctor.

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