James Hewitt traveled to Naples, Florida two weeks ago to help a friend repair and clean up his damaged property and boat in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, having no idea it could potentially put his own life in danger.
After he fell into a canal while working on the boat and scraped his leg, the wound became infected with a rare bacteria called Vibrio Vulnificus that lives in hot salt water.
The bacteria entered his bloodstream and the 54-year-old resident of Jenison, west of Grand Rapids, was hospitalized and died of the infection on October 11. Hewitt’s two children and his fiancée Leah Venlet-Delano were with him. at the time and says he died peacefully.
“Jim is always the kind of person who, you know, would give the clothes off his back and he was always jumping around to help everybody out,” Venlet-Delano said. “He jumped at the opportunity because he had seen, like all of us, how devastating the hurricane was.”
Vibrio Vulnificus infections are rare, according to the Florida Department of Health. However, one in five infections leads to death, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. After entering Hewitt’s bloodstream, the bacteria caused sepsis, or multiple organ failure, and dangerously low blood pressure despite antibiotic treatment, Venlet-Delano said.
Hewitt is at least the second Michigann to lose his life as a result of Hurricane Ian, the devastating Category 4 hurricane that hit Florida’s west coast. Craig Steven Markgraff Jr., who split his time between Florida and Michigan, drowned in rising floodwaters during the hurricane. The Board of Medical Examiners of Florida reported 102 deaths from Hurricane Ian on October 10, but many predict that the indirect death toll will be much higher.
Venlet-Delano said her fiancé’s sudden death was “extremely shocking” because they had heard no warning about Vibrio Vulnificus when Hewitt traveled to Florida to help his friend.
“We were very angry that nobody knew about it, at least from here, you know, in Michigan,” she said. “It’s a problem now, it’s there and it has been and the locals know it, but the people who come down to help don’t know it.”
Venlet-Delano and Hewitt’s two sons, Kendall Smoes, 29, and Joshua Hewitt, 27, launched a GoFundMe to help fund his funeral and transportation of his remains from Naples to Michigan.
Vibrio Vulnificus can infect people with open wounds through direct contact with seawater or by eating raw shellfish, according to the Florida Department of Health. Immunocompromised people like Hewitt are more likely to have serious complications from Vibrio Vulnificus infections and the department warns them to wear protective footwear in the water to avoid cuts and infections. They also say never swim with an open wound.
Vibrio vulnificus is one of many bacteria that can cause necrotizing fasciitis or flesh-eating disease, but not all infections do, according to the CDC. In 2022, there were 65 Vibrio Vulnificus infections in Florida, twice as many as in 2021, and 11 deaths, according to health service statistics. The increase is due to the impacts of Hurricane Ian, including flooding.
Venlet-Delano is now trying to raise awareness about the bacteria and the life-threatening infections it can cause so others don’t suffer the same fate as Hewitt.
“People who want to help usually come from areas they don’t know about…the dangers that exist there and I think that message should be shared,” Venlet-Delano said. “They are not necessarily part of an organized volunteer group that can receive this kind of information.”
“If you have an existing condition, or even if you’re perfectly healthy and have open cuts, don’t go in that water. You don’t know what’s in there.”
Hewitt was a former General Motors employee who took early retirement, his fiancé said. She described him as “the life of the party” and said he enjoyed making others laugh. He had even worked on starting his own local salsa business before leaving for Florida.
“He was so full of life and love and we really, really lost someone very special,” Venlet-Delano said.