Ed Whitehurst still can't believe it, even when he looks down and sees only bandages marking the spot where his left leg used to be.
"Sometimes it seems like a dream," says the 33-year-old waiter. "I take a day off to go tubing down the Salt River in the sunshine with some friends, and I end up losing my leg. Imagine that. The thing ate my leg--and fast, too."
"The thing" is a deadly, fast-moving and highly resistant bacteria that doctors say must have been present in the river water when Whitehurst broke his ankle during a tubing accident last month.
What should have been a serious, but treatable, injury turned into a nightmare when the bacteria aeromonas--which lives in raw sewage and polluted water--infected the ankle.
Whitehurst's doctor, Lee Fairbanks, calls the bacterial infection "rare and severe" and speculates that the river contamination was caused by revelers
defecating in the Salt River as they float downstream. This is the same river that eventually provides treated drinking water for the Valley.
Martha Whitehurst, who watched her son's leg deteriorate as he lay semiconscious from pain and medication, describes the bacteria as a "piranha."
"I've never imagined anything like it," she says. "It just took over."
The infection spread rapidly from the foot to calf muscle, eating away at bone and muscle tissue and eventually forcing the amputation of Ed's leg from the knee down.
Operating-room photos taken while doctors were desperately trying to slow the pace of the infection by exposing the open wound to oxygen show inflamed muscle tissue and darkened, brittle, eroded bones.
"You know, at first they kept telling me it was going to be okay," Whitehurst recalls. "`You might lose some mobility in the ankle, but it will be okay.' That's what the doctors told me." He pauses.
"Well, it's not okay. It's never going to be okay. And I want to know: What the hell is in that river anyway?"
That is a question state health officials can't answer.
Was Whitehurst's infection a fluke, the result of a one-in-a-million meeting between an open wound and an isolated deposit of raw sewage? Or does it indicate widespread contamination of the river by tubers?
No one seems to know because no one apparently monitors the quality of the river water in the tubing area. However, the river water is monitored and treated downstream before it reaches Valley faucets.
A spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Quality referred questions to the Maricopa County Health Department, Arizona Department of Health Services, the U.S. Forest Service, and Salt River Recreation, a private company that rents inner tubes in the area. But none do bacterial testing. It's not known whether other river revelers have contracted infections similar to Whitehurst's.
A spokesman for Salt River Project, which does run frequent checks on water in the Phoenix canals, said the utility has found no evidence of dangerous bacteria feeding into the Valley's water supply from the Salt River, but had already planned to conduct a study during a weekend--when recreational use of the Salt is highest--to determine the quality of water coming into metropolitan Phoenix treatment plants.
Kevin Wanttaja, supervisor of water quality and waste management for SRP, says he believes the tests will find that the treatment plants "may be chlorinating the water a bit more when recreational use is real high" on the river. But he stresses that SRP believes there are no dangerous bacteria in Phoenix drinking water.
Only a few miles upstream, however, it may be a different case. It was the conclusion of the medical team treating Whitehurst that the source of the bacteria was in the river water, Fairbanks says.
"The patient lay in the [river] for some time after his injury," Fairbanks tells New Times. "The water, which must have been polluted with human waste . . . had to be the source."
The accident occurred June 5, when Whitehurst and a group of friends who were floating on inner tubes down the Salt east of Phoenix stopped to have lunch on a cliff near the river's South Blue Point Bridge. Whitehurst slipped off the overhang and plunged thirty feet into shallow water against the rock wall below. The waiter's companions and official reports confirm his account that he was not cliff-diving. Whitehurst's friends say he had had only one drink that afternoon.
"I had a choice of falling head-first or feet-first, I remember," Whitehurst says. He chose the latter. It was a decision that saved his life but shattered his left ankle, which slammed against the river bottom. His foot was twisted ninety degrees, and a large bone fragment pierced the skin.
Whitehurst spent about fifteen minutes floating rapidly downstream before he was picked up by sheriff's deputies. After nearly ninety minutes waiting for an ambulance, he was driven to Scottsdale Memorial Hospital--North.
Whitehurst's ankle was so severely fractured that doctors were forced to perform reconstructive surgery using a bone taken from his hip.
Two days later, Whitehurst recalls, physicians noticed that the wound was not healing properly and found the infection. But they found it too late. After only 72 hours, and despite an infusion of antibiotics, the bacteria had devastated the skin, muscle and bone on the lower leg. The bone taken from Whitehurst's hip had been almost completely eaten away.
Less than a week after the accident, faced with an out-of-control infection that Fairbanks determined could be fatal if allowed to spread above the knee, the decision was made to amputate the leg.
Fairbanks, who is Whitehurst's family doctor, says the decision was made only after a bacteriologist and several surgeons also looked at the infection. But no one knows how much more of the vicious aeromonas bacteria could remain in the river.
Lakes in the Salt River chain are regularly checked for bacteria levels and have been closed for a few days at a time during summer months when bacteria rise to unhealthy levels. Other recreation areas, like Slide Rock in Oak Creek Canyon near Sedona, are closed much more often because of pollution.
As far as anyone knows, the Salt River itself has never been closed to tubers for health reasons. The owner of Salt River Recreation, which rents inner tubes and runs a bus line for the up to 6,000 people a day who go tubing during the peak season from June to September, says such measures are unnecessary because the Salt is "the cleanest river in the U.S."
"The river travels so quickly, and it is crystal clear," says Henri Breault, who founded the tubing service ten years ago. "We don't test and we don't close up because we don't need to.
"There's no way [Whitehurst] picked up anything in that river."
Whitehurst, pointing to his missing leg, disagrees.
"Before they cut it off," Whitehurst says, his voice cracking, "they showed me what my leg looked like. It was horrible.
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"The parasite had literally eaten away at me. When the doctors cut into my leg, all they found was pus around what was left of my calf muscle."
Whitehurst is making do with crutches while he is being fitted for an artificial leg. Soon, if his therapy goes well, he hopes to return to his job at the Camelback Inn.
He says he also has a new cause: to persuade the state or federal government to conduct regular bacteria tests of the river water and to post warning signs if dangerous levels are detected. He worries that others could, through minor cuts or other injuries suffered while on the river, contract the potentially fatal infection.
"I want the whole world to know," he says, "that I took off a day to float down the river and it ended up changing my whole life.