As if hunting wild jungle pig in the Amazon wasn't enough adventure, Matt Wright had to go and contract an extremely rare flesh-eating bacterial infection. Actually, Wright met up with four different kinds of flesh-eating bacteria while he was a contestant on Discovery Channel's Naked and Afraid spin-off series, Naked and Afraid XL.
In the current season of Naked and Afraid XL, now showing on Sunday nights, Wright and eleven other contestants who were picked from a previous season of Naked and Afraid were tasked with surviving Ecuador's Amazon basin for forty days and forty nights. Teams of three were scattered across the jungle, naked, armed with only a satchel, a cauldron for water, two tools of their choice and a small, fully equipped production crew. The camera crew was under strict orders not to help the contestants and to take their union breaks.
Wright has been a hunting guide since he was fifteen years old, and started his own survival business when he was in his early twenties. After two years in the Air Force, he received a medical discharge and returned to work at Lakewood-based Extreme Instincts. He was a natural to join the cast of Naked and Afraid; he proposed to his future wife on camera in Thailand.
With one enjoyable season under his nonexistent belt, Wright was eager to return to the show. Early in this round, Wright made Naked and Afraid history when he became the first contestant to successfully hunt wild game: On a solo mission, he killing a ninety-pound jungle pig with his handmade bow and arrow and knife.
Soon after, Wright and his remaining teammate met up with the rest of the contestants, and Wright quickly became the pack leader. He was the only skilled hunter among all the contestants, and they relied on him for substantial meals. "I was doing better than well," recalls Wright. "I had figured out how to catch all this food. I was pretty much helping to feed this whole family of people."
It didn't last, though. Around day seventeen, Wright says his foot started hurting; it seemed like he'd gotten a really bad bug bite among all the thousands of other bites. The pain progressed overnight, and in the morning he noticed a blister on his foot. Still, he carried on, finding more food and enjoying his triumphs in the Amazon. But by that evening, the blister had turned into an open sore, and he couldn't move his foot.
An American medic took a look, but didn't know what it to make of the sore. The Ecuadorean doctor had a better idea, but didn't know the severity, and so sent a sample to the nearest lab over a hundred miles away. In the meantime, Wright was taking antibiotics. The pain felt like someone was constantly carving away his flesh with a hot knife, peeling back skin and tissue one layer at a time. Still, by day twenty, he thought he could get back in the game.
Then the test results came back. The doctor's suspicions were confirmed.
"Before you know it, I had some incredibly rare, flesh-eating bacteria — something you'd see on Animal Planet's Monsters Inside Me — that was eating away at the flesh on my toes on my one foot at a pretty excessive rate," Wright recalls. "You can almost watch it eat away flesh."
Within twenty minutes of getting the results, Wright was forced to tap out. He was rushed from the jungle to a hospital three hours away.
"The feeling of losing my stronghold on the jungle and having to leave all of my survivalists, it was just the worst feeling I could have imagined, besides the fact that I thought I might lose my foot, leg or life," remembers Wright. "If I were to have broken my leg, I would have stayed and dealt with it when I got home."
For a few minutes, he seriously considered cutting off his toe and soldering it to stop the blood so that he could stay in the jungle — but his life was on the line.
In the latest episode of Naked and Afraid XL, which aired last Sunday, the bacteria spread to Wright's other foot, and the rest of the contestants started to worry that it could spread to them.
Necrotizing fasciitis, the culprit that conquered Wright, usually gets into the body through an open cut, according to the Centers for Disease Control. It's often composed of several kinds of bacteria; Wright's lab results showed his infection had four kinds, one of them Mycobacterium marinum, an aquatic bacteria. Wright thinks it probably got into his foot when he was moving sediment on the river floor while fishing. The bacteria is not accustomed to oxygen, so once it was in his foot, it was trying to hide from oxygen by eating away his flesh.
By the time Wright arrived at the hospital, the infection had eaten through the skin around several toes as well as some on the bottom of his foot; it was getting down to the muscle in places. Had the infection not been aggressively treated, it would have mutated and Wright might have lost his foot, his leg, or even his life. He stayed in the Ecuadorean hospital for the next seven days.
"It was by far the scariest part about the whole Naked and Afraid," says Wright. "Without a doubt, I would have rather survived naked in the jungle than one day in the hospital."
Hospital staffers would clean his foot off over the floor, and then someone would return later — much later — to mop everything up. Wright's IV bag would run dry and his blood would flow back into the bag. All of the machines he was on were hooked up to the wall, so he had to use a bedpan. And he was fed a steady diet of chicken-feet soup. The irony of being in the hospital for rotting feet was not lost on him.
During the twenty days he was in the jungle, Wright lost five pounds; he lost eight during his seven days in the hospital. He was told he was on four times the amount of antibiotics a normal person would have had to take, including anti-fungal and anti-parasites, to treat the parasitic worms tunneling red track marks in his feet.
After a week, Wright was bandaged up and allowed to return to America, where he visited infectious-disease consultants to make sure everything was under control. Wright's liver and kidneys were damaged by the antibiotics, giving him a full-body rash for three weeks; because the antibiotics were so potent, the vein the hospital had used collapsed and is now useless.
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Doctors have told Wright that having survived this bout, he's no more susceptible to another visit from flesh-eating bacteria than anyone else. In fact, the chances of getting another infection are the equivalent of winning the Powerball twice. Wright likes those odds, and isn't afraid of returning for another round of Naked and Afraid.
"I would go back in a second," he says.
Naked and Afraid XL airs at 8 p.m. MDT Sundays on the Discovery Channel. The episode when Matt Wright leaves the show will repeat on Sunday, May 21.