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Man's legs amputated after spider bite

Associated Press (2001)
     ARLINGTON, Wash. - A Mount Vernon man had to have both legs amputated after he was bitten on New Year's Eve by what doctors believe was a brown recluse spider.  Gerardo "J.D." Chavez-Ibarra, 19, is recovering from the amputations performed Jan. 15 and open heart surgery he underwent Jan. 10 at the Regency Care Center here.  The bite was especially damaging because of a pre-existing bacterial infection, which damaged a valve in Chavez-Ibarra's heart.  He was stunned and humiliated by the amputations at first -- "I didn't want my friends to see me like this."  And he was shocked that a spider bite was the cause.  But Chavez-Ibarra, who enjoyed basketball, kickboxing and in-line skating, said he tries not to be bitter.  He's focusing on recovery and learning to get around on his own.  He even jokes with family and friends about his amputated limbs, calling them his "little stubbies."    

"I've learned not to take anything for granted now," Chavez-Ibarra said. "I'm going to do something with my life, since I wasn't doing much before."  His troubles began in December.  Doctors think his severe bacterial infection resulted in part from a weakened immune system, said his sister, Amy Chavez. But when Chavez-Ibarra first started getting sick, he didn't pay much attention.  So he ignored the cold-like symptoms he had toward the end of December.  A few days later he was bitten between toes of his left foot by the spider -- he still doesn't know where it came from.

Within a few days, streaks formed on his left leg and he became too weak to walk or eat.  After two trips to the emergency room, on Jan. 9 he went to see his family doctor, who called in a specialist from Seattle.  The specialist determined that the infection had reached his heart.The next day, Chavez-Ibarra had open-heart surgery.  During the operation doctors noticed a blood clot was spreading to his legs, already weakened by the spider bite, Chavez-Ibarra's sister said.  One doctor told her only a brown recluse spider, whose venom can cause swelling and skin damage, could have done such harm. 

The brown recluse spider -- about one inch in diameter, with a violin pattern on its back -- is rare in the Pacific Northwest, said Dr. James Heffelfinger of the state Health Department.  Doctors tried to save Chavez-Ibarra's legs, but had to amputate them five days after the surgery.   Medical bills, already totaling several hundred thousand dollars, pose another challenge.  Chavez-Ibarra and his parents have no insurance.

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