Swimming In Bayou St. John: Not A Good Idea

Jul 29, 2020

At a time when fear of a virus has nagged at our every choice for months, the last thing anyone needs is an added fear of flesh-eating bacteria. But we need to talk about flesh-eating bacteria.

As the city settles deep into summer heat, many New Orleanians are heading to Bayou St. John to cool down and recreate on paddleboards, in canoes or in kayaks.

Blake Bertuccelli’s favorite spot to put his kayak in is down by the railroad tracks on Florida Avenue.

The view before Blake Bertuccelli scraped his hand in Bayou St. John and contracted a nasty infection from aeromonas hydrophila.
Credit Blake Bertuccelli

“I’m here at least three times a week, floating around watching egrets and ducks,” he said, on a Zoom video call from his favorite spot.

About two weeks ago, as he finished his paddle, he pushed his kayak straight up into the grass and tried to jump out, but he fell out instead.

“When I rose from the water my whole arm was covered in blood,” he said.

It’s easy to slip and fall on slimy bayou concrete, and the wound didn’t look too bad. But within a few days, Bertuccelli’s hand was swollen and red.

A long red streak was coming from the cut up my arm,” he said.

He was terrified.

A neighbor, who happens to be a doctor, told him to go to the hospital immediately. Surgeons at Ochsner operated on his arm, removing a small pebble. When he woke up they told him if he had waited any longer the infection could have gone septic, which could have been fatal. He was hospitalized for three days. They told him the infection came from a bacteria: aeromonas hydrophila.

David Mushatt, an infectious disease specialist at Tulane University, said the bacteria is not uncommon and it thrives in warm water.

“I kayak there, too,” he said. “And boy, I'm not surprised. I'm sure there's all kinds of critters in that water.”

Doctors removed a tiny pebble from Blake Bertuccelli's hand, which caused his entire arm to swell up.
Credit Blake Bertuccelli

Aeromonas hydrophila is related to the more common saltwater bacteria vibrio, which usually makes the news every summer on the Gulf coast when someone gets infected with the flesh-eating bacteria, or dies from eating infected oysters. Aeromonas hydrophila is mostly dangerous for those who are immunocompromised or have an open wound.

“It's definitely preventable. It's nothing to panic about. I'm not aware of any big outbreak,” Mushatt said.

He said if you have a wound and it gets wet, clean it with soap and water and hydrogen peroxide. Use some antibiotic cream. Nine times out of 10, it’s fine.

Bertuccelli’s experience is very unusual. He’s otherwise young, healthy and not immunocompromised. He’s also very careful. He checked the water quality on theswimguide.org to make sure it was safe before he went kayaking that day. It displayed a little green icon that said: “Meets water quality standards.”

The site is run by the non-profit Pontchartrain Conservancy, which tests the bayou water once a week, at a site where it dumps into Lake Pontchartrain. That makes it a limited sample, in that it does not reflect the quality of the water body as a whole.

Water Quality Program Director Brady Skaggs said they only test for three different bacteria, and aeromonas hydrophila isn’t one of them.

“There are a variety of different microorganisms that can cause some very nasty infections,” he said.

They mostly test for fecal coliform, which comes from human and animal feces and can make people sick.

Skaggs said that testing for aeromonas is difficult, and is not required by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Certainly a disclosure about safety and the types of inherent risks that you assume when you go swimming in a natural body of water is warranted,” Skaggs said.

City code officially bans swimming in Bayou St. John. Skaggs said that’s partly because it’s dangerous; there’s lots of trash under the water.

Blake Bertuccelli's hand is healing up, but his girlfriend still says he whines too much.
Credit Blake Bertuccelli

“There is nothing that we do that is a zero-risk activity, unfortunately,” he added.

Swimming at the mouth of the bayou, where it dumps into the lake, is safer.

Bertuccelli’s stitched and bandaged arm is still healing, but he has kept his kayak strapped to the top of his car.

“As soon as my stitches come out and my hand heals, I'll be back in my kayak,” he said “It’s really one of the truest joys I’ve found in recent memory.”  

Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.