A Langley man battling flesh-eating disease is hoping his story will help others avoid the devastation his family is now facing, after doctors misdiagnosed his condition in its early stages.
Rob Erke was working at his family’s small mobile trailer repair company on Canada Day when he noticed a pain in his shoulder. Upon inspection, he found a small lump, and went to the hospital.
The doctor tested to see if there was any kind of infection, and determined it was just an irritation. Rob was given some anti-inflammatory and pain medications and sent home.
By Wednesday, he began feeling sick and the little lump grew into a big, painful spot. He went to the hospital again on Thursday, but the wait time was so long, he decided to visit his family doctor the next day instead.
His doctor told him it was a bacterial infection, and gave him some antibiotics and requisitions to get blood work and X-rays done.
He was sent home again.
On Saturday morning, July 7, Rob woke up with a fever of 39.7 degrees and a huge, purple coloured mass on his shoulder. His wife, Eilish, sat by his side and tried to bring down his temperature until he fell asleep. She then called an ambulance.
“It turned out that it was quite bad and that his blood was absolutely septic, and they said if I hadn’t brought him in right away it could have killed him,” Eilish told the Langley Times.
“So then they sent him to Royal Columbian Hospital and said it was some ‘fleshitis,’ like a flesh-eating disease bacteria.”
Later that day Rob went in for surgery, followed by another surgery on Sunday to remove a large portion of his shoulder.
He was supposed to go for a third surgery the next day, but doctors decided to hold off.
“They put some kind of packing in him that’s got a pump that draws all the stuff out because they can’t seem to get a hold of the infection that’s in his blood still,” Eilish said.
“And I was told that this bacteria is quite nasty, it likes to attach itself to organs and joints. And right now he’s having tests done just to keep an eye on his heart, and they’re concerned about his left knee.
“It’s swelled and it’s actually swelled worse since Saturday, so just checking to see if it’s spread.”
According to HealthLink BC, flesh-eating disease, formally known as necrotizing fasciitis, is a severe, quick-spreading bacterial infection in the tissue or flesh surrounding muscles.
About two or three out of every 1 million people in B.C. contract the disease each year, and it can be fatal.
It is caused by many different bacteria, particularly ‘A streptococcus,’ the same bacteria that causes strep throat.
A streptococcus can be found on the skin, and in the nose and throat of healthy people, but most people do not get sick from it.
Just how it causes flesh-eating disease in some is not fully understood, the HealthLink BC website states.
“Since this severe form of streptococcal infection can progress so rapidly, the best approach is to get medical attention as soon as symptoms occur.
“An important clue to this disease is very severe pain at the site of a wound,” the website says.
“Always take good care of minor cuts to reduce the chance of the tissues under the skin getting infected. If you have a small cut or wound, wash it well in warm soapy water, and keep it clean and dry with a bandage.”
If Rob’s infection is fully treated, he still faces plastic surgery to repair the large hole now in his shoulder.
Eilish recently broke her arm, so neither she nor her husband are able to run their labour-involved company at this time.
They’ve been relying on friends and family to help drive her to the hospital, and to watch their 16-year-old son, Bronson, who has epilepsy and cannot be left alone.
“It’s been a bit of a nightmare,” Eilish said.
The family wants to get the word out about their situation to raise awareness of flesh-eating disease and its early warning signs, as they had never heard of it until Rob was diagnosed.
“We didn’t realize how common it actually is, and that anyone can get it,” Eilish said.
“It doesn’t even have to be a scratch. Like he didn’t have a scratch, a bite or nothing.
They still have no idea how, or why, he got it. And he’s a big guy who works outside, he doesn’t even really get sick often. So for him to be taken out that quickly like that is very scary.”
Both Eilish and Rob are encouraging people to listen to their bodies when symptoms begin.
“He wants people to be aware that — not to frighten people — but especially fellas, they literally don’t go in until they are literally dying. And I know it’s a running joke for fellas, but it’s true,” Eilish said.
“He didn’t really pay attention to his own symptoms. He just sort of put it off, and it could have killed him.”
Eilish and Rob’s friends, David and Norma Chan, have also set up a GoFundMe page — without the couple’s knowledge — to help with finances during this ordeal.
“I just wanted to thank everybody — people who have stepped up to help, to show awareness,” Eilish said.
“The people in the hospital have been great. Friends, family, everybody. And I just want people to be aware.
“Listen to your body. Hug and kiss your loved ones. That’s about it, really.”