I survived being eaten alive

It was meant to be the trip of a lifetime. Little did Vince know he was about to experience a holiday from hell

Vince Paciullo, 28, Dee Why, NSW

Curled up in a ball, shivering, I looked around at the rest of the group basking in the sun. Despite the sweltering heat, I felt like I was in Antarctica – and for some reason my right leg had swelled up to twice its normal size. Something was wrong.

It was May 2012 and I was on the trip of a lifetime, travelling through South America with four mates. So far we’d experienced the breathtaking sights of Chile, Argentina and Bolivia – and now we were on a four-day adventure trek to the ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru.

On the first morning, we were up at the crack of dawn ready for a day of mountain biking and water rafting. As a 25-year-old adrenaline junkie, I couldn’t wait to get stuck in. Despite misty conditions and a slippery trail, I pushed myself to the limit – even falling off my bike a couple of times. But a few grazes on my legs and hip didn’t bother me as I spent the afternoon water rafting and zip-lining.

When the doctor arrived, his face turned white.

It wasn’t until later that night that I started to feel unwell. I developed a fever and my knee and hip felt sore. But we had a 17-kilometre hike through mountainous jungle the next day – so I had no intention of bailing out! Two weeks earlier, I’d been rescued from the top of a mountain in Bolivia after suffering extreme altitude sickness. The last thing I wanted was to ruin things again for everyone.

Over the next few days, I gradually got weaker and weaker. I suffered feverish sweats and excruciating pain and felt like I would pass out. Finally, sweating, sleep-deprived and with body spasms, I hobbled down to the reception of the remote hostel and managed to croak, ‘I need to see a medic. Now!’ When the doctor arrived, his face turned white as he examined me. ‘I think you’ve got necrotising fasciitis, a flesh-eating bacteria. We need to get you to hospital immediately,’ he said gravely.

Although it’s impossible to tell exactly how I contracted the bacteria, he suspected I’d picked it up through the grazes I got on the bike ride. Once at a clinic, my leg was cut open to assess the severity of the situation. The next few days passed in a whirl of MRI scans and treatment. I had a special procedure called hyperbaric oxygen therapy, which increases the oxygen carried through the body in a bid to fight the bacteria. The affected tissue in my leg was also removed. ‘It’s just a small infection. Don’t worry,’ I bluffed to my mum Louise, 60, in a call back home. But it couldn’t have been further from the truth.

My leg while I was in hospital (Credit: that’s life!)

‘I have to be blunt with you,’ the doctor told me. ‘Your situation is very serious. There’s a 40 per cent chance you may not survive and if you do, there’s a 50 per cent chance you may lose your leg. If the infection spreads past your hip into your torso, the consequences could be deadly.’ I was being eaten alive!

At this point I realised I had two options – fight for my life, or die. I chose to fight. Over the next two months I endured nine operations in Peru, the USA and back home in Sydney. As well as losing 10 kilos, I had 50 staples and 40 stitches in my leg. My deepest wound took months to heal and I lost most of my quadricep muscle. But I never gave up hope and incredibly, after five long months of operations and recovery, I kept my limb.

The surgery that saved my life left me deeply scarred (Credit: that’s life!)

Just a few weeks after my final operation for a skin graft, I was out of hospital, enjoying a well-earned beer at my local pub when I met someone special – Sophie, 28. Sparks flew instantly and we quickly became a couple. I felt totally at ease showing her my leg! I even joked I’d been bitten by a crocodile!

Three years on, my leg is still weak. I have a permanent scar and walk with a slight limp but I haven’t let it stop my adventurous spirit. I’ve run a half marathon, climbed to base camp at Mount Everest and am proud to have set up my own landscaping business. In a strange way, that flesh-eating bug has given me a new zest for life. If it can’t stop me, nothing can!

Sophie and me – the future looks bright (Credit: that’s life!)

Sophie says: ‘I knew Vince was special from the moment I met him, but even I’m shocked by how much he’s achieved. Watching him tackle life at full speed, despite his injury, is truly amazing and I’ve nominated him for a Pride of Australia medal. Most of our dates are action-packed – we’ve been skydiving, shark diving, quad biking and we’ve even taken up golf together. Vince has taught me how precious life can be and not to sweat the small stuff. He truly is my hero.’

Originally published in that’s life! issue 30 2015, coverdate 30 July 2015

Flesh-eating bug: Necrotising fasciitis is a serious bacterial skin infection that spreads quickly and kills the body’s soft tissue. Necrotising means ‘causing the death of tissues.’ Most commonly caused by group A streptococcus bacteria, it can become life-threatening very suddenly. However, if you’re healthy, have a strong immune system, practice good hygiene and proper wound care, your chances of getting the infection are extremely low.

Related stories