Margaret Freiwald: Vibrio vulnificus bacteria in the Gulf causes infection, woman has leg amputated

HERNANDO COUNTY, Fla. -  "I don't think I'll ever go swimming again," Amber Castleman said through the phone. She spoke to us Wednesday night from a hospital in Naples. Her 84-year-old mother, Margaret Freiwald, is there in surgical intensive care.

"You always hear something like this happening to other people, but you never really pay attention because it really never hits home," Castleman said.

This time it did.

Until a week and a half ago, Castleman says her mom was quite healthy. She says her only ailment was arthritis.

But on July 20, a group from the Fraternal Order of Eagles went swimming in the Gulf between the Hernando and Bayport channels. Freiwald scraped her shin getting back on a boat.

At first, everything seemed okay. The next morning, Freiwald and her boyfriend left for a vacation to Naples. But by nighttime, her leg started to look infected. Three days later, on Wednesday, doctors had to amputate it above the knee.

"I don't want anybody to be in the position I'm in right now. I don't want anybody to feel the way I feel right now," Castleman said.

Doctors say Freiwald's wound became infected with Vibrio vulnificus, a bacteria found in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

It's much more prevalent in the summer months. According to the Hernando County Health Department, Vibrio vulnificus can cause disease if people ingest contaminated water or they are exposed to it through open wounds.

"I wouldn't say it's rare. I wouldn't say it's particularly common," Hernando County Health Department spokeswoman Ann-Gayl Ellis said.

The bacteria is particularly dangerous when it gets into the bloodstream.

Ellis said people with a weakened immune system are 80 times more likely to develop a serious illness if they come into contact with it. But she said this should not scare people away from the water.

"This does not mean you can't go to the beach anymore," said Ellis.

"Most of us who are swimming in water are going to ingest some of it, but most of us who have healthy immune systems will be able to fight it off and may not even notice we've been exposed to it."

According to the Health Department, approximately 14 serious cases are reported throughout the state of Florida each year.

Freiwald is one of them.

"It's not about me or my mom right now. It's about telling people that this is out there," Castleman said.

To learn more about Vibrio vulnificus go to


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