Flesh-Eating Oysters

He ate seafood with bacteria that ate him. And everybody's shucking the blame.

The crew at Afton Oaks Barber Shop had a gentleman's agreement with one of their neighbors along the tiny business strip on Richmond Avenue: The barbers would cut the hair of employees and selected friends at the Ragin' Cajun restaurant.

And the eatery would reciprocate with food for barbers Melvin Rodney "Mike" Matthews and Robert W. "Buddy" Pullen. The two left the shop on a Saturday in May 2000 to take in a Ragin' Cajun lunch.

Matthews, a 59-year-old diabetic, loved the poor boys and gumbo. But he opted on this day for something different: six oysters on the half shell. Soon he wasn't feeling good.

The popular Ragin' Cajun says the 2000 incident was its only problem with oysters.
Deron Neblett
The popular Ragin' Cajun says the 2000 incident was its only problem with oysters.

By the following Monday, Matthews sought care for worsening chills and fever and swelling of his limbs. Then strange lesions appeared on his skin. Sixteen days and $350,000 in medical bills later, the comatose man suffered a particularly horrible death at Hermann Hospital. Lesions had erupted into bulbous blisters, then gaping holes in his body. Swelling had ballooned Matthews's head to almost the size of a basketball, and his organs had finally shut down.

Doctors attributed his death to the rare onset of Vibrio vulnificus -- in common terms, he was killed by rapid, flesh-eating bacteria.

"It is devastating," says one defense attorney, Jim Jones. "The effects of the disease are horrendous. It literally rots the flesh off your bones. It is one of the most virulent pathogens on the planet."

And blame for the death has been spreading almost as fast as the bacteria. Burgeoning legal briefs are ever expanding with defendants in probate court. "They are 'Enronizing,' " says the Matthews family's attorney, Ray Putney. "They are blaming everybody but the people who served up the contaminated oysters."

Matthews, as well as most of the general public, seemed totally unaware of the ultimate consequences when those with weakened immune systems eat oysters contaminated with the bacteria.

Oddly, Matthews's only previous exposure to contaminated oysters came six years earlier. His wife, Jeannine Jones-Matthews, 58, said in a deposition that she downed raw oysters at a Galveston restaurant and wound up at the University of Texas Medical Branch for treatment.

After that, she said, they would cook oysters, usually wrapping them around jalapeños and baking them for "oysters diablo." Matthews, twice divorced, and his wife of seven years lived for their weekend getaways to his modest bay house in Galveston. She is a social worker at Hermann Hospital. Matthews also had a 35-year-old son and 32-year-old daughter.

After his death, investigators traced the supply route for the deadly oysters. They were originally collected near the southern Louisiana town of Franklin and sold to Bagala's Quality Oysters Inc. Bagala's resold the batch to Johnny's Oysters and Shrimp Inc. of San Leon, Texas, which marketed them to Buddy Robbins Seafood Inc. of Houston. Ray Hays Inc. got the oysters from Robbins. (The restaurant also has taken over Matthews's former barbershop space.)

None of the experts was surprised that the Vibrio vulnificus turned up in the oysters, because it's common in Gulf waters, and therefore in the shellfish found there. Jones, attorney for the Robbins company, explains that the bacteria thrive in the relatively warm saltwater of late spring and summer.

There is no way to eradicate it in its natural habitat, and the only effective test for the bacteria is useless because it destroys the oyster. "If oysters are eaten starting in May, you can count on some number of the organisms in shellfish," Jones says. "But the dose that kills one man may not harm another."

The difference is that those with compromised immune systems -- especially people with chronic liver disease -- have about 200 times the risk of contracting the potentially lethal disease. Jones says death from that is rare -- about 20 million people eat oysters, and about 20 from the risk group die annually.

Attorneys and experts agree that most of the public is still under the impression that bad oysters may cause temporary problems, but not fatal conditions.

Matthews had non-insulin diabetes, controlled by oral medication, and some other health problems. But apparently he was not aware that his immune system could not cope with contaminated oysters.

His family and estate sued the restaurant and its suppliers on a variety of grounds: negligence, deceptive trade practices and product liability. They allege that precautions could have been taken to avoid offering the tainted oysters.

The suit notes there are pasteurization processes to eradicate bacteria in oysters. Jones says they are ineffective -- a 76-year-old man died after eating supposedly treated oysters in mid-2000.

Jones disputes the claims against suppliers. They will rely on the findings of Richard Thompson, a former 17-year head of the state health department's seafood safety division, that the shipments were handled according to regulations.

The suppliers and Ray Hays Inc., while expressing sympathy for the family, want to brand Matthews as an alcoholic, saying his daily intake of three or so drinks aggravated the liver disease that caused the bacteria to kill him.

They have a nearby liquor store operator, Luke Mandola, ready to testify that the barber bought two or three gallons of vodka or tequila a week -- although it is uncertain how much went to entertaining friends at his home and bay house.

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