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Kayaker contracts flesh-eating bacteria climbing Tampa dock, lawsuit says

He blames the company that rented him the boat.
Kayakers paddle toward downtown Tampa from Ballast Point Park. A lawsuit alleges that a Tampa man fell from a kayak and contracted flesh-eating bacteria while he cut his feet trying to get out of the water.
Kayakers paddle toward downtown Tampa from Ballast Point Park. A lawsuit alleges that a Tampa man fell from a kayak and contracted flesh-eating bacteria while he cut his feet trying to get out of the water. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Nov. 8, 2021

TAMPA — A Tampa man says in a lawsuit that he became infected with flesh-eating bacteria after taking a spill from a kayak near the busy boat-rental area at the Tampa Convention Center.

Robert Ray “Bob” Williams said he fell into the water in February because of a faulty seatback on the rental kayak and cut his feet on barnacles and oysters as he climbed from Garrison Channel onto a floating dock. The bacteria entered his body through the cuts and he required surgery to remove it, the lawsuit said.

Williams, 68, a sports and entertainment consultant and former president of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, is seeking damages from the rental company, operating as Tampa Bay SUP, saying he suffered permanent injuries to his feet.

The company declined to comment for this story. Williams did not respond to requests for comment left in six calls to phone numbers listed for him, his businesses and in an email to his business.

Does flesh-eating bacteria pose a danger to other tourists and locals who take to the waters around the Convention Center?

Don’t worry too much, advised Dr. Valerie Harwood, a professor in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of South Florida. The bacteria rarely enter the body through normal pathways like the nose, mouth or ears.

Williams was exposed to two types of the bacteria, necrotizing fasciitis and vibrio vulnificus, according to the lawsuit.

Necrotizing fasciitis, called “flesh-eating” bacteria because it spreads so quickly, is an infection that stops blood circulation and causes tissue to die and skin to decay. The condition is somewhat rare and can come from different strains of bacteria.

Vibrio vulnificus is common in the brackish waters of Tampa Bay, Harwood said. While most prevalent in summer, this bacteria is present year-round because local waters remain relatively warm.

It is most likely to cause infection when it enters through open wounds, especially when the patient is older or immunocompromised with liver issues or diabetes.

Vibrio vulnificus can grow rapidly inside the body, spreading in the bloodstream throughout the body and causing septic shock — an infection that can result in organ failure and dangerously low blood pressure.

“If you have an open wound, there’s the old saying, ‘Go into the salt water and wash your wounds out,’” Harwood said. “Do not ever do that. Especially if there is a possibility the water is brackish because that’s where these bacteria live and will enter your body.”

The bacteria can also enter the body through the consumption of infected shellfish, such as oysters.

Recovery depends on how fast the infection is caught and treated by medical professionals. A number of surgeries are typically required to remove infected tissue, as are long courses of potent antibiotics.

Flesh-eating bacteria claimed the life of a 77-year-old Ellenton woman in 2019 after she scraped her leg in the water at Anna Maria Island.

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In Williams’ lawsuit, filed Sept. 22 in Hillsborough Circuit Court, he said he informed an employee at Tampa Bay SUP that the kayak seatback was faulty. The employee “fiddled” with it, the lawsuit said, and sent Williams on his way.

The seatback collapsed minutes later and Williams ended up in the water. He was unable to pull himself back into the kayak or onto docks close by so he swam east under the Harbor Island Bridge in search of a way out, the lawsuit said.

He was able to pull himself onto the floating dock with help from others, cutting his feet along the way.

He returned on foot to Tampa Bay SUP and demanded a refund. He was refused, the lawsuit said, and he walked a quarter-mile back to his home on Bayshore Boulevard.

Williams was fine the day of the incident, the lawsuit said. The following day, he began to develop flu-like symptoms and a call was made to 911.

Williams was taken to nearby Tampa General Hospital and diagnosed with septic shock.

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