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Juneau man survived flesh-eating bacteria, faces extensive rehab

Ruben Pereyra nearly loses arm to rare but deadly disease

Posted: July 22, 2012 - 12:10am

A Juneau man is recovering from a horrific attack from flesh-eating bacteria, and will keep his badly damaged arm, his wife told the Empire.

Ruben Pereyra cut his left hand in what appeared to be a relatively minor accident a month ago, but somehow developed a case of necrotizing fasciitis, or flesh-eating bacterial, said wife Ana Pereyra.

They had feared Pereyra was going to lose his arm, and he had even given doctors at Harborview permission to amputate if they needed to stop the progression of the disease, she said.

“They were able save his arm, but he’s a lefty and his left arm is now too stiff to use,” she said.

Over the last month in the hospital skin grafts have been done, but she said doctors have told them that damage to the tendons may take two years and extensive rehabilitation before they’re again functional.

The good news, she said, is that the bone and muscle is good, and that doctors were able to halt the spread of the bacteria.

The Pereyras are now worried that Ruben won’t be able to resume his job as a school bus driver, and that their insurance is not adequate to cover their medical expenses.

An account has been set up at Wells Fargo Bank to help the family.

The trust account is named for account number 7632926452, Alaska Man R.P. 2012 Trust, she said.

Necrotizing fasciitis has been in the news lately after Aimee Copeland, a Georgia college student, lost several limbs to the rare disease.

Pereyra was sent from Juneau to Seattle for the specialized treatment after doctors at Bartlett Regional Hospital suspected the fast-expanding infection might be flesh-eating bacteria.

That wasn’t Ruben Pereyra’s first trip to the hospital however.

He first went to the emergency room on June 18 with swelling in his hand, and was given the painkiller Motrin and sent home. He returned the next day with more swelling and pain, and was given the more powerful painkiller Vicodin and sent home.

On the June 20, she said, he returned to the emergency room with swelling, pain, and so sick that he told doctors “I can’t get out of bed.”

Then they then diagnosed the possible necrotizing fasciitis and sent Pereyra to the Level 1 trauma center at Harborview.

Ana Pereyra said doctors there told her that had Ruben been even a day later in arriving they wouldn’t have been able to save him, let alone his arm.

She said she wants more people to be aware of the little-known disease.

“The doctors said it is rare, but not as rare as you’d think,” she said.

It is caused by naturally occurring bacteria, but it is not clear why it occasionally causes great damage.

It does take a break in the skin to get into the body, and Bartlett spokesman Jim Strader said that’s where the disease can be prevented.

“If you ever get any kind of wound at all, immediately clean it out,” he said.

Any cut, no mater how small, and even bug bites should be treated as at risk of infection, he said.

Pereyra said the cut to his a knuckle on his left hand was relatively minor, about a centimeter, and wasn’t at first recognized as dangerous.

“I asked him, did it bleed a lot, and he said, ‘no, that’s the thing,’” Ana Pereyra said.

She said the cut had been incorrectly first reported as a splinter.

Strader said soap and water are a good way to clean any break to the skin, but antiseptic hand sanitizer can also be used.

“Your skin is your best deterrent against any kind of infection,” he said.

Ruben is now being released from Harborview, but will have to remain in Seattle for a month for daily follow-up treatment, including daily changing of dressings over his skin grafts.

“All of the grafts didn’t “catch,” she said, but enough did to save the arm.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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