The Tragic Story of How Flesh-Eating Bacteria Forced an Emergency Plane Landing

The Tragic Story of How Flesh-Eating Bacteria Forced an Emergency Plane Landing

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In late May, a plane from the Canary Islands had to make an unscheduled stop in Portugal to eject a passenger whose strong body odour raised complaints from fellow travellers. But the truth about his illness has now put a tragic end to the story.

 

Last week, the man sadly died from his ailment – a flesh eating bacteria that was causing him to decompose from the inside.

The smell emanating from 58-year-old Andrey Suchilin, a well-known Russian rock guitarist, was so bad that other passengers aboard the Transavia flight from Gran Canaria to the Netherlands began to feel unwell.

Flight attendants did what they could – even asking the man to confine himself to the bathroom, according to CBS – but to no avail.

“It was like he hadn’t washed himself for several weeks,” fellow passenger Piet van Haut told Express. “Several passengers got sick and had to puke.”

There seemed only one thing for it: the plane made an emergency stop in Faro, Portugal, and Suchilin was removed from the flight.

In a Facebook post, Suchilin and his wife explained they had sought medical care before leaving Spain, and the doctors had told the patient he had contracted an “ordinary beach infection”.

He was taken to a hospital in Portugal, but his situation rapidly deteriorated, and he was diagnosed with tissue necrosis. The decision was made to place Suchilin into a medically induced coma while doctors tried to prevent organ failure.

 

Unfortunately, they were unsuccessful. Suchilin passed away on June 25 without waking up.

It’s not known precisely how Suchilin contracted necrosis, which is the premature death of cells – basically, decomposition while the patient is still living. External causes include infection, oxygen deprivation, injuries, and improper wound care, particularly near water.

In beach environments, being wounded on coral can allow necrotising marine bacteria to enter the body, where it thrives in the anaerobic conditions, cutting off blood supply to tissues in the body, which in turn causes decomposition.

This process produces a very strong smell as the tissue effectively rots. The dead tissue can’t be saved, but if necrosis is caught early enough, the bacterial spread can be halted.

“Unfortunately, early necrotising fasciitis is easily missed,” wrote epidemiologist Allen Cheng for The Conversation last year. “This is because the symptoms – fever, pain, swelling and tenderness at the affected site – may be non-specific or confused with a mild, superficial infection.”

In Suchilin’s case, this early window for treatment passed, and the bacteria moved to his heart, kidney and lungs.

 

Tissue necrosis is actually pretty rare – a 2006 report noted that the global incidence is 1 case per 100,000 people annually, although it does vary by region. It’s also higher among certain demographics – patients with impaired immunity, obesity and diabetes, as well as intravenous drug users, are at higher risk than the general population.

If you do receive a wound and are worried about necrosis, the best thing you can do is keep the wound clean and dressed, and keep a careful eye on the symptoms, since the smell won’t manifest straight away.

“The hallmark of necrotising fasciitis is pain far more severe than expected for what might otherwise look like a minor infection,” Cheng wrote.

“As the infection progresses, the skin becomes tense and discoloured [like a bruise], and patients may become severely unwell with low blood pressure and confusion.”

Sadly, even seeking urgent treatment can be no guarantee for recovery. Our deepest condolences go to Suchilin’s family during this terribly sad time.

 



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Jim Staab

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