As blistering skin lesions spread across his swollen necrotized limbs, Oliver Johnson lay unconscious. His body, bloated and scratched, playing host to three violent bacterial strains. His chances of survival remain up in the air at best. This young man, an avid surfer and beloved friend, remains in critical condition as of Thursday. His leg amputated, and with a cocktail of antibiotics dripping into his vulnerable body, it appears as though Mr. Johnson has become a casualty of bureaucratic meandering and unfortunate environmental circumstance.
In a season wrought with near non-stop rain and natural disasters, Hawaii suffered another setback last week with a massive sewage spill on Oahu. The result of a cracked pipe from an antiquated sewer system, 50 million gallons of untreated sewage oozed into the Ala Wai canal, plundering the surfing bastions of Waikiki and the famed South Shore. Environmentalists have serious concern that the spill may cause long term damage to the fragile reefs and ecosystems. Swimming and recreation is still not permitted in the ocean within a mile of the spill. Fearful of the effect it could have on tourism, beaches appear to be prematurely opening, which leads us back to Oliver Johnson.
After a night out last Friday Mr. Johnson, a Honolulu mortgage broker, was assaulted and thrown into the Ala Wai harbor. Unaware of the danger posed by his open wounds, he began to feel increasingly ill, rushing to the hospital only after giving the infection several days to invade his blood and organs. The three types of bacteria infecting Johnson: Vibrio vulnificus, Aeromonas, and Enterococci, are all deadly in their own right – and have posed a triple threat to this man’s health. With one leg amputated, septic shock, and three limbs not yet out of danger, Oliver Johnson clings to life in a hospital bed surrounded by friends and family.
Yet with so much at stake for Hawaiian tourism, a debate is heating up about opening the beaches, and this particular medical case. Scientists from the University of Hawaii say that exposure to the raw sewage in the harbor could certainly have contributed to Mr. Johnson’s infections. The bacteria in his body often exist in warm water, though usually in trace amounts, and the likelihood of infection would be exacerbated by the presence of nutrients found in floating sewage. Dr. Sarah Park, deputy chief of the Health Department’s Disease Outbreak Control Division disagrees. “Is [the infection] because of sewage? We don’t know,” Park said. “No one can answer that.”
Despite this wrangling the fact remains that a pristine surfing and recreation area has been severely compromised and people’s lives put at risk due to further encroachment on our natural resources, and lack of preventative planning. More importantly no one is standing up and taking responsibility for the actions that led to this disaster.