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Prognosis Good for Victim of Flesh-Eating Bacteria

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An Encino man attacked by the so-called flesh-eating bacteria will need at least two more surgeries on his leg, according to his doctor, but because the deadly infection was caught in its early stages, the prognosis is good.

“If all goes well, he will be in the hospital for maybe another week or 10 days,” Dr. A. Richard Grossman, head of the Grossman Burn Center at Sherman Oaks Hospital, said Monday. “Then after a couple more weeks of physical therapy, he’ll probably be ready to go back to work.”

Grossman said that Lawrence Roberts, 50, was in serious but stable condition and not in much pain.

“I saw him this morning in the whirlpool bath,” Grossman said. “He was in good spirits and wanted to know when we would let him out to go to his office.”

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Technically known as necrotizing fasciitis, the rare, virulent bacteria attacks the body by choking off capillaries, preventing blood from reaching tissue. It usually enters the body through an open wound.

“If left untreated, the infected person dies,” said Grossman, who noted that the burn center usually sees only a couple of cases of the condition per year.

The infection, which is not contagious, became known locally in December 1994, when two people in Southern California died after contracting the bacteria. One of them was Thomas Larkin, chancellor of the Ventura County Community College District.

Roberts, vice president of Venture Tech 200, a software and consulting firm, had a friend bring him to the emergency room of the hospital about 8 p.m. Friday because his right foot had become so painfully swollen he could no longer stand on it.

An emergency physician, Dr. Thane Blinman, recognized the symptoms of the bacteria, which is so virulent that the damage it causes can be seen spreading by the naked eye.

“They called the old man,” Grossman said, speaking of himself, to report what they had found. “I said, ‘Get an operating room ready, I’m on my way.’ ”

Grossman drove to the hospital from his home in Ventura. By 11 p.m., the diagnosis had been confirmed and Roberts was undergoing surgery to open up his leg, exposing the infection.

“Luckily, we got it before it got above the knee,” Grossman said.

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Roberts was placed in a hyperbolic chamber to expose the wound to concentrated oxygen, which helps stop the spread of the infection. He was given antibiotics, and his leg was covered with a temporary dressing made from skin harvested from a human cadaver.

Another surgery has been scheduled for today to reopen the wound for another oxygen treatment.

“By Friday, if all looks good, we can go back into surgery again to take skin from his own thigh to do a graft to cover the wound,” Grossman said.

The bacteria might have entered Roberts’ body in an area that was irritated by a case of athlete’s foot, he said.

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“It’s rare for a person to get infected, but the bacteria can be on the ground, it can even travel through the air,” Grossman said.

It does not seem to favor any particular segment of the population.

“I’ve seen it in 70-year-olds, I’ve seen it in 20-year-olds,” the physician said.

“The key is that it be caught in time.”

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