Chef Matt Murphy has the hands of a culinary artist in his kitchen at the Ritz Carlton in New Orleans — but he’s also a rugged man who hasn’t shied from being battered and bloodied playing his favorite sport, rugby.
So when he felt pain after tripping over one of his daugters’ toys just over a year ago, Murphy’s first instinct was to simply suck it up and move on. Little did he know he was beginning an agonizing medical odyssey that he came through only with first-rate medical care and a lot of luck.
Master chef Murphy had contracted necrotizing fasciitis (NF), more commonly called flesh-eating disease — an ailment that sounds like it comes from a science-fiction thriller but is an extremely rare yet all-too-real threat. It can start with just a minor scrape, but its mortality rate is 90 percent, and even those lucky few who survive often have limbs amputated.
It didn’t go away
But Murphy appeared hale and hearty on TODAY Friday, with all his limbs intact. Accompanied by his wife Alicia and their 8-month-old daughter Alana (the couple left their active bunch of 2½-year-old girl quadruplets back in the Big Easy), he told Matt Lauer that his decision to head to the emergency room was the best he’s ever made.
“I’m a rugby player. I’ve broken my nose seven times; I can deal with pain,” Murphy said in a brogue that reflects his hometown of Dublin, Ireland. “I said, ‘Hey, it’s going to go away,’ but it didn’t. But lucky enough I went [to the hospital].”
Still, Murphy was about ready for his last rites by the time he showed up at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans, some two days after tripping. Doctors were unable to find his blood pressure and did all they could to keep him alive. Worse, they didn’t know what was wrong with him.
Murphy’s angel arrived in the form of Dr. Frederic Wilson. An orthopedic surgeon at the hospital, he had encountered that NF before. The disease is so rare, with only 500 to 1,500 cases diagnosed a year, most physicians have never seen it. But Wilson recognized what Murphy was dealing with.
“He was basically on death’s doorstep,” Dr. Wilson told NBC News. “He was already in organ system failure and was in basically toxic shock.”
Appearing with the Murphys on TODAY, medical correspondent Dr. Nancy Snyderman told Lauer NF results from streptococcus, the bacteria most of us carry around and is the cause of strep throat. But in Murphy’s case, the bacteria manifested itself in an unusual way.
“[He was] colonized with bacteria, and strep got into that incidental wound and started to fester, grow very rapidly. And then the turning point was it produced this powerful toxin,” she explained.
Doctors tried their best while preparing Murphy’s family for the worst.
“The doctors came to me and they kept saying, ‘Your husband is a very sick man, you need to call his family and bring his family home,’ ” Alicia Murphy told NBC News. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God, he could die?’
“I said, ‘Listen, this man means everything to me, we have four young children at home, I’m pregnant with his fifth child. Do everything you can; please, please take really good care of him.’ ”
Thankfully, Murphy came back whole; doctors found it remarkable that they didn’t have to perform any kind of amputation. In the eight cases of NF the hospital had seen in 25 years, Murphy is the lone survivor.
Alicia Murphy told Lauer she counted on her husband’s toughness to carry him through and come back to their family.
“I had the girls at home and I was pregnant with Alanna, and I knew that I had to be tough,” she said. “I also knew that Matt is the toughest guy I’ve ever known, and I knew he would make it out of it. [But] I was scared; I’m not going to lie.”
Murphy faced an uphill battle even after he was out of the woods. The long coma and myriad surgeries left him weak and frail. He had to regain sense in his extremities and was so stiff he had to learn to use his legs again.
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Video: Jambalaya jamboree Murphy told Lauer he set a target date of October to complete his rehabilitation so he could be present at the birth of his fifth daughter. And yes, he made it.
“Dr. Wilson was phenomenal; he said, ‘You’re going to walk out of this hospital, I’ll walk out of this hospital with you,’ ” Murphy said. “I said, if he had that determination, I could pull from my side, too.”
Murphy is a rising chef on the culinary circuit, recently opening M Bistro at the Ritz Carlton. He’s showed off his cooking chops on numerous national TV shows — including TODAY on Friday, where in a second appearance he whipped up a jambalaya that delighted former New Orleans resident Hoda Kotb.
And Murphy is beloved in the Big Easy, as demonstrated recently when some 45 fellow chefs gathered to cook at a fundraiser that raised $250,000 to pay medical bills that weren’t covered by his insurance.
“It’s a miracle,” Alicia Murphy told NBC. “I have my wonderful husband who’s healthy and here, and we’re a lucky, happy family.”
Snyderman told Lauer Murphy is no more at risk of contracting NF again than any of the rest of the population. She added while the disease is extremely rare, its deadly potential is in all of us.
“If you start to see a wound festering beyond what you think is normal, get in [to the hospital],” she advised. “It is rare, but it can happen to you.”
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