Former marathon director John Conley fighting flesh-eating bacteria

Conley, who is in Hawaii, has had two surgeries to remove affected tissue in his leg.

Longtime Austin race director John Conley is fighting a case of necrotizing fasciitis at a hospital in Hawaii.

Conley — who spent 19 years as race director of the Austin Marathon and Half Marathon and 20 years working with the 3M Half Marathon — was vacationing on the big island of Hawaii when he came down with the rare infection, also known as flesh-eating bacteria, about a week and a half ago.

“For a guy whose leg looks like a shark attack, I’m really doing pretty well,” Conley said by phone Tuesday from Hilo Medical Center in Hawaii, where he is recuperating after two surgeries to remove affected tissue.

Doctors said Tuesday that Conley might be discharged from the Hilo hospital by mid-August. He plans to return to Austin, where he’ll need skin graft surgery to cover wounds on his left leg.

Necrotizing fasciitis, a serious bacterial skin infection, spreads quickly and kills the body’s soft tissue, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since 2010, approximately 700 to 1,100 cases of necrotizing fasciitis caused by group A strep have occurred each year in the U.S.

Flesh-eating bacteria has been in the news recently after a Kyle man had to fight to save his leg because of it after visiting Mustang Island, near Corpus Christi, in June.

The Hilo Medical center sees several cases of necrotizing fasciitis each year, said Chad Shibuya, infection control director for the hospital. It’s not caused by a specific organism, although certain types of bacteria that commonly live on the skin, including strep and staph, can cause it. Bacteria thrive in warm, humid environments like Hawaii.

“It’s like an infection that goes out of control,” Shibuya said. “A lot of times it starts off as something rather benign — a cut or scrape. For whatever reason, it gets infected. Generally speaking, it usually happens in people who don’t have good immune systems, but that’s not always the case.”

The infection can spread within hours. Sometimes amputation is required to contain it. If left untreated, it can cause death.

Conley and his wife, Stacey, arrived in Hawaii in early July, expecting to stay through the first week of August. They rented a house in Kapoho, near a popular snorkeling spot called Kapoho Tide Pools, or the Champagne Ponds. They went for a long run and walk one day, and John Conley later stumbled in a gravel parking lot. That same evening he went for a short swim behind the house.

That’s when Conley believes he might have contracted the bacteria. The waters were stirred up after a tropical storm that hit the island that week, and he thinks he might have scratched his leg in the fall. After the swim, Conley says he felt tired and developed aches and shivers.

“I took my sock off that evening, and it was excruciating, like my skin was on fire,” he said. “I couldn’t believe how much pain I was in.”

Conley, a former nurse, woke up the next morning feeling worse. When his entire leg turned red and blotchy, his wife took him to the Hilo hospital, where doctors diagnosed him with necrotizing fasciitis. They operated to remove the affected tissue and stop progression of the infection. He had more tissue removed during a second surgery a few days later.

Conley’s condition has improved since last Friday, but doctors are monitoring the infection and might still have to amputate his leg, Conley said.

“Right now it’s still a day-to-day thing,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s a 50-50 thing, but right now I still have (my leg). It will be severely disfigured — and probably a while before I run the Honolulu Marathon.”

Conley has had a series of health problems in recent years. He underwent brain surgery about three years ago. Last year he had a hip replacement.

It’s not the first time he’s faced the possibility of amputation, either. He considered amputating his leg below the knee after a bout of deep vein thrombosis in 1996. “I’ve considered the last 20 years to be a gift that I was able to keep my leg,” he said.

Conley retired and closed Conley Sports Productions, his race production business, in February. High Five Events has since taken over operation of the Austin Marathon and Half Marathon.

He’s called the time since his retirement his “Year of Living Dangerously,” because he’s been through floods in Texas, earthquakes in Japan, a visit to the Korean demilitarized zone and a near head-on collision with a bus in Hawaii. He says he’s been flooded with texts and emails wishing him well since his latest incident.

“There’s so much love and aloha,” he said.

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