8-year-old boy from Oregon dies from flesh-eating bacteria

PENDLETON, Ore. — Liam Flanagan seemed a typical 8-year-old boy.

The Pilot Rock second-grader rode his bike, scarfed down molasses cookies after school and roughhoused with his three step-brothers. He loved to wear camo and feed the animals on his family’s farm.

But life, as the saying goes, can turn on a dime.

Saturday before last, Liam wrecked his bike as he rode down a hill on his family’s Spring Creek property. Blood seeped from a thigh wound where the end of the handlebar sliced through his jeans. An emergency room doctor stitched him up and the incident seemed destined to fade from memory as just another foible in the life of an active, young boy.

Several days later, however, Liam found himself fighting for his life.

Flesh-eating bacteria, which likely entered his wound from the soil, attacked the boy’s soft tissue. In the days to come he would endure four surgeries to remove infected tissue.

Liam’s mom and stepfather, Sara Hebard and Scott Hinkle, realized something wasn’t right on Wednesday when Liam complained of intense pain in his groin area. Scott took a look and reacted with alarm at what he saw.

“It was purplish-red and gangrenous looking,” he said. “We threw him in the rig and went like hell.”

After surgery at St. Anthony Hospital in Pendleton to remove infected tissue, Liam and his mother flew by air ambulance to Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland early Thursday morning. Scott stayed back to care for the other boys. In Portland, the surreal nightmare continued as surgeons tried to stay ahead of the rare but deadly infection, known as necrotizing fasciitis, by amputating parts of the boy’s body.

“They basically cut him up piece by piece,” Scott said.

“Almost his whole right side was gone,” Sara said. “They kept cutting and hoping. Cutting and hoping.”

Eventually, as Liam kept going downhill, he was transferred to Randall Children’s Hospital on Sunday so another team could take a look at the problem. That night, Liam died.

Sara said she is still processing. Her emotions run the gamut. She smiles in wonderment as she recalls how he tried to keep his family and friends from worrying as he lay in his hospital bed in a nest of tubes, electrodes, cables and monitors. He FaceTimed with friends, laughing, joking and showing his tubes.

“He told them ‘It’s just going to be a couple of days and I’ll be coming home,’” Sara said. “He was so strong and so brave.”

At one point, Liam was feeling dehydrated and Sara promised she wouldn’t eat or drink until he was able. Liam wouldn’t have it.

“He took my hand and said he just needed a hug,” she recalled.

Scott spoke to Liam for the last time by phone on Friday.

“I told him to be strong and that he’d be OK,” Scott said. “He said he missed me.”

Now that Liam is gone, Sara and Scott are reeling in a rush of memories.

“He was a bright ray of sunshine,” Sara said. “He loved everyone and everyone loved him. He was one of those people who would walk into a room and would draw everyone.”

“He was a lovable kid,” Scott said of the boy who uncomplainingly helped him build fences and do other tasks around the farm. “He never had a bad word to say.”

They are second-guessing themselves. Maybe if they’d gotten Liam to the hospital sooner when he first complained of pain they had chalked up as normal. They want other parents to know about the flesh-eating bacteria, something they didn’t previously know about.

“We don’t want any other parents to go through this,” Scott said.

The community is raising funds to help the family with medical and funeral expenses. A taco feed will take place during Friday’s Pilot Rock High School basketball games against Stanfield to raise funds. A loaded baked potato feed is on tap during the next day’s games against Culver. A blanket toss, bake sale and basket raffle will take place both days.

“Everyone is asked to come wearing camo in memory of Liam,” said organizer Joan Harrison.

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