• Tennessee man says flesh-eating bacteria caused softball-sized hole in lungs, necrotizing pneumonia

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    NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WZTV) — As numerous reports of deaths related to flesh-eating bacteria continue to surface, a Tennessee man said he is a lucky survivor after a day on the river led to a softball sized hole in his lung.

    Jeremy Willeby calls himself a "river rat," someone who just loves being out on the water.

    READ: 'Within 48 hours... he was gone': Memphis man dies from flesh-eating bacteria in Gulf waters

    "This is something I've done my whole life," said Willeby in an interview with WZTV in Nashville

    Early last month, Willeby was doing what he loves, inner tubing behind a boat on the Caney Fork River.

    "Some of the water got into my ear and I swallowed some," said Willeby. "It's nothing new, I can't tell you how many times that has happened." 

    But the next day, Willeby said his ear started to hurt so he went to the doctor and was given a prescription for Prednisone, a steroid used to treat conditions with inflammation.

    Over the next two days, Willeby's temperature spiked to 105 degrees, so he decided to go to the hospital. Willeby was given a Z-pack, an antibiotic to fight a possible infection. 

    Days later, he was done with the Z-pack and things got worse. 

    "I started coughing up this thick, chunky red mucus," Willeby told WZTV. "I was coughing up little pieces of my lungs."

    He took another trip to the hospital and he was diagnosed with Sepsis, a complication of infection which can shut down organs. 

    "My kidneys were nearly shutting down; my liver was a mess. I nearly went into toxic shock," Willeby said. 


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    Following a CT scan, Willeby said doctors told him he had necrotizing pneumonia. The rare complication of pneumonia, it can cause liquefaction and cavitation of lung tissue. 

    Willeby was in the ER for six days and referred to a pulmonologist. After seeing the specialist on Thursday, Willeby said he has a hole the size of a softball in the left-lower lobe of his lungs. 

    "The doctors said it should heal but I will still have diminished lung capacity due to scarring," Willeby said.

    If the hole doesn't close, doctors will have to remove that part of his lung. Willeby said doctors tried to isolate the bacteria but they believe it is also possible a little bit of staphylococcus (staph) got into his lungs when he swallowed the river water. 

    According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), "Public health experts believe group A Streptococcus (group A strep) are the most common cause of necrotizing fasciitis." Though in Willeby's case, his diagnosis was necrotizing pneumonia.

    Willeby said his friends and family have expressed concerns about going into fresh water systems after his ordeal, but he's telling them not to be "freaked out." 

    "It’s so rare and it was like a one-in-a-million chance," he said. 

    This is a sentiment a specialist in the field echoed. The specialist stated there are millions of people who go swimming each year and water is not a predisposition to pneumonia. 

    "There is no precedent," the specialist stated. "It's also possible there was a viral infection already in the body which was then complicated by a bacteria in the throat."

    As for his health, Willeby said he is playing the wait-and-see game to see how he heals. 

    "I don't feel like I'm dying anymore, but with every breath my lungs hurt. Doctors say it may be a year before I reach anything close to feeling 100 percent, but I will never have the functioning I did before in that lobe," Willeby said.

    Willeby's experience is just the latest in multiple reports of cases believed to have been caused by flesh-eating bacteria. On Friday, a Memphis man's family said he died from flesh-eating bacteria after visiting a Florida beach.

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