DEQ RENEGES ON SPECIAL RIVER TESTINGEVEN WHEN FACED WITH ANOTHER INFECTED TUBER
The Salt River will not be tested for the deadly bacteria that destroyed the leg of a Phoenix man earlier this summer--despite earlier promises that tests would be done if other victims were found.
And there is another victim, New Times has discovered. A 31-year-old Mesa woman spent two weeks in the hospital in July 1988 after a tubing accident, battling the same bacteria, aeromonas, that attacked Ed Whitehurst's leg. Like his doctors, hers said she picked up the bacteria in the river.
Despite this new information, officials from the Department of Environmental Quality now say they feel their current tests--which cannot detect the bacteria--are sufficient to protect the safety of the thousands who have made river tubing one of the Valley's most popular pastimes.
After New Times revealed Whitehurst's problem, and called for river testing in a July 11 editorial, DEQ released data indicating the agency has been testing the Salt regularly for overall water quality. But the tests don't specifically monitor levels of aeromonas.
In addition, the tests are only conducted 2.75 miles from the beginning of the tubing area. The water quality is unknown on the lower five miles of the river where recreational use is high.
Jack Bale, DEQ program manager, told New Times that officials would move quickly to test the river if other examples of bacterial infection appeared.
But now his superior says that isn't so.
Ed Swanson, DEQ's supervisor of water point source and monitoring, says "Aeromonas is ubiquitous in the natural environment and will not be analyzed [in the river]." What he means is that the bacteria are present but DEQ doesn't believe they're at dangerous levels.
Swanson says DEQ commissioned two water samples from the Salt River July 18, and found the water to be within federal limits for bacteria. Like previous tests, however, the July readings did not look for aeromonas, and were conducted well upstream from most of the high-use area.
WHEN 31-YEAR-OLD Jannett Olson of Mesa read about Ed Whitehurst, she thought to herself, `I wonder how much worse it could have been for me?'" Olson tells New Times she lacerated her left knee while cliff-jumping into the Salt River on July 9, 1988. She says she went immediately to a local emergency room to get the knee cleaned and stitched up. But she was forced to return later, wracked with pain around the red, irritated wound and suffering from fever and chills. In a few days, when it became apparent that the antibiotics prescribed for her home use weren't working, Olson was admitted to Mesa Lutheran Hospital, where the aeromonas infection was discovered. "The doctors asked me, `You've been in the river, haven't you?' They knew what they were looking for, like they had seen it before," Olson says.
According to Olson's medical records, the infection had spread from her knee, through her lymphatic system, into her thigh and groin, causing red streaking in the lymph nodes under the skin.
"The pain was horrible," she remembers. "I sat there looking at the red lines running up my leg and wondering if it could get any worse."
Fortunately for Olson, doctors were able to defeat the bacteria, which thrive in raw sewage and polluted water, through massive doses of antibiotics. Unlike Whitehurst, whose leg was amputated a few days after his June 5 accident, Olson walked out of the hospital.
"I feel people don't know what they're getting into when they go out to the river," Olson says. "I think all you need is a little cut, and something like this could happen."
Similar concerns have sparked debate over the safety of tubing down the Salt and prompted a verbal attack on Whitehurst through a public relations firm hired by Salt River Recreation, the company that holds the concession to rent inner tubes along the river.
As New Times reported on July 4, Whitehurst said he broke his ankle in a fall while tubing on his day off. His doctors say the bacteria entered Whitehurst's ankle through a break in the skin, spreading rapidly through bone and muscle tissue and literally eating away at the leg in a matter of days.
But Whitehurst's account of the accident--and the records from his doctors--have been challenged by Salt River Recreation owner Henri Breault and Maricopa County Sheriff's Deputy Dana Gonder, the officer who treated Whitehurst the day he was injured. Breault, facing a 40 percent decline in business since the Whitehurst story appeared, has hired the high-powered Phoenix public relations firm of Nelson, Ralston, and Robb to restore faith in the river's safety--and to discredit Ed Whitehurst.
The firm released a sworn affidavit by Gonder July 19, in which the deputy claims that Whitehurst's injury was only a simple-fracture ankle break, and that "there were no skin perforations, no blood [and] no open wound," making it difficult or impossible for Whitehurst to have contracted the bacteria from the river.
"Had there been an open wound," Gonder says in the affidavit, "I would have cleansed the wound and called for air evacuation in order to reduce the risk of infection."
But medical records reviewed by New Times show that at least three of the physicians who treated Whitehurst at Phoenix Baptist Hospital--Lawrence Green, Leslie Robinson, and Lee Fairbanks--filed reports that make reference to a severe, open compound fracture.
Michael Shiaras, Whitehurst's attorney, refers to the discrepancy as "confusing, to say the least."
"You've got these trained, professional doctors who examined and treated Ed in the hospital calling the injury a compound fracture," he says, "while the deputy insists it is just a simple fracture. It's hard to believe that the deputy would make this assertion."
Shiaras hypothesizes that Gonder, who was certified as an emergency medical technician in May, misjudged the severity of the injury and is now concerned about his treatment of Whitehurst. "The wound didn't have to be big and bloody to be open," he says. "Maybe the deputy missed it."
Normal sheriff's department policy calls for helicopter transportation in the event of a compound fracture. Instead, Gonder called an ambulance, which took 45 minutes to arrive. Shiaras says he suspects Gonder is worried he made the wrong decision.
"Why is this guy doing this now?" Shiaras asks. "Methinks he [Gonder] doth protest too much.
"In any event, in the face of the documented medical records, it's a pretty stupid thing to do."
Neither the sheriff's office, representing Gonder, nor a spokesperson for Nelson, Ralston, and Robb had any comment on the discrepancy.
John McKindles, the corporate attorney for Salt River Recreation, says Whitehurst and Shiaras could settle the dispute by releasing the medical records to the public, which they so far have refused to do.
"We've got a sworn statement from a deputy sheriff that has been published and is a matter of public record," McKindles says. "We can't say that the records of Mr. Whitehurst are as credible, because we haven't seen them."
Shiaras says his law firm has a policy of not releasing medical records of clients. "We just don't do it," he says, "especially when contemplating litigation. Our policy, while evaluating potential lawsuits, is to not try them in the press."
Whitehurst says he is distressed that his case has become the subject of public-relations wrangling and that there are those who don't believe his story. He is amazed the account of the accident that led to the amputation of his leg has been called into doubt.
"I went through hell, and could have died," he says. "If this didn't happen, could they please tell me where my leg is?"
"The doctors asked me,`You've been in the river, haven't you?' They knew what they were looking for, like they had seen it before."
The tubing company hired the public relations firm of Nelson, Ralston, and Robb to restore faith in the river's safety--and to discredit Ed Whitehurst.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.