PORTLAND — An 18-year-old Cheverus High School student who died in February just days after undergoing oral surgery contracted a rare, flesh-eating bacteria, according to the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
Benjamin LaMontagne died as a result of complications of cervical necrotizing fasciitis following a dental procedure, Mark Belserene of the medical examiner’s office said Thursday.
LaMontagne died Feb. 22 at his home on Long Island. His obituary listed the cause of death as complications from oral surgery. An autopsy was performed on Feb. 23.
Commonly known as “flesh-eating bacteria,” necrotizing fasciitis ravages muscles, fat and skin tissue, typically entering the body through a break in the skin, such as a cut or scrape.
The disease can be caused by several types of bacteria, most commonly group A Streptococcus, otherwise tolerable germs typically found in the throat and on the skin. Infections from group A strep are usually easily treated, but in some cases produce toxins that can destroy the tissue they infect.
Dr. John Molinari, infection control expert for the American Dental Association, said such infections are exceedingly rare.
“I have not heard of anything like that, with necrotizing fasciitis as a result of routine oral surgery extractions,” he said.
Dentists and oral surgeons follow well-established protocols to limit infection, including sterilizing instruments with heat and wearing gloves, masks and eyewear, said Molinari, director of infection control at The Dental Advisor in Ann Arbor, Mich.
“That takes care of, typically, the overwhelming majority of anything than can happen,” he said. “I’m surprised to hear that it happened.”
Symptoms of necrotizing fasciitis often start within hours after an injury and may include complaints of pain or soreness, similar to a pulled muscle. The skin may be warm with red or purplish areas of swelling that spread rapidly. Some patients may develop ulcers, blisters or black spots on the skin.
People with necrotizing fasciitis often describe their pain as severe and far out of proportion to how painful the area appears when examined by a doctor, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fever, chills, fatigue or vomiting may follow the initial wound or soreness.
The first line of defense is powerful antibiotics, but the drugs may not reach all of the infected areas. Quick removal of the dead tissue is critical to halting the infection.
Those who survive may face organ damage and amputation.
Healthy individuals who practice good hygiene are at extremely low risk of contracting necrotizing fasciitis, according to the CDC.
Each year in the U.S., 650 to 800 cases of necrotizing fasciitis caused by group A strep are reported, though that figure likely underestimates the actual number, the CDC states.
LaMontagne was a member of the National Honor Society and an accomplished musician, playing in the band and jazz combo at Cheverus and studying bass clarinet and voice at the Portland Conservatory of Music. He was proficient in clarinet, saxophone, bassoon, English concertina and the penny whistle.
LaMontagne was also a member of high school’s varsity sailing team.