Buffalo News

Man Battles Flesh-eating Bacteria

A close call for a local cop

News Staff Reporter

When Thomas Cino developed a rare flesh-eating disease four weeks ago, he watched in horror as the bacteria chewed through a thick chunk of his upper right thigh.

The necrotizing fasciitis - a flesh-eating bacterial infection that can cause death within 12 to 24 hours - spread rapidly, destroying layers of tissue around his muscles.

Within minutes of his diagnosis, the 13-year Buffalo police veteran was lying on a hospital bed awaiting surgery with his wife at his side.

He is now recovering at home after enduring surgery to remove the infected tissue and taking antibiotics to fight the infection.

His prognosis is good, and he is humbled by the support he is receiving from family, friends and colleagues, but the experience has changed him.

"I was scared to death," Cino said as he sat in the living room of his Grand Island home.

"I'm glad to be here because this thing can kill you."

"I was numb. It was like a bad dream," added his wife, Carrie, an elementary school teacher in Niagara Falls. "You hear about this stuff in movies, and we didn't understand the full severity of it."

Today, Cino's wound on his right thigh is covered with white bandage. Underneath, the wound is a concave, triangular-shaped area that is light pink, 12 inches long, 6 inches wide and a centimeter deep.

"It looks like I got bit by a shark and it got a chunk of my leg," Cino said.

"I remember looking at it and getting upset and crying because it's a very emotional thing when your body is altered. I did a lot of crying, but I also thank God for helping me heal."

On his left thigh are two long scars from a skin grafting operation where his skin was transplanted to cover the wound. He describes this procedure as excruciatingly painful and equated it to "peeling off a top layer of skin with a cheese slicer."

He grimaces as he maneuvers his 6-foot-2-inch frame from the couch to the chair, bracing himself on a crutch under each armpit. Once a 240-pound bodybuilding enthusiast who was so fit he auditioned for the Survivor television show, Cino has lost about 25 pounds in the past month.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 600 cases of necrotizing fasciitis - resulting in about 150 deaths - are reported each year in the United States.

The flesh-eating disease is a form of group A streptococcus, which is the same bacteria that causes strep throat. The bacteria is not thought to be contagious but can be spread through close personal contact such as kissing. The bacteria can enter the skin through an opening, such as the site of a small cut, bruise or surgery, but in other cases there is no obvious source of infection.

Misdiagnosis is common since the early symptoms of necrotizing fasciitis are high fever and red, severely painful swelling that feels hot to the touch.

After almost two hours of surgery on June 8, Cino spent three weeks in the hospital taking pain killers and enduring painful wound cleansing and several infection scares before he was released from the hospital on June 29. After he uses his vacation time, he'll likely be forced to take an unpaid leave of absence from his patrol job at the Northwest District police station.

"He's a very giving and selfless person," said his colleague, Officer Steven Padin.

"Tommy is still very conscientious and idealist about this job. He's always trying to make a difference and change the world for the better."

This time, Western New Yorkers are coming to Cino's aid.

"It's very humbling to be at the other end of the spectrum," Cino said.

Donations to help Thomas Cino may be made to: The Thomas Cino Fund, c/o M&T Bank, 2303 Delaware Ave., Buffalo, NY, 14216. The public also is invited to a fund-raising party and silent auction from 7 to 11 p.m. Aug. 12 at the Amici Lodge, 299 Connecticut St. Tickets are $25 each; call 851-4413 for more information.