When Sara Hebard’s 8-year-old son suffered a minor injury after falling off his bicycle, she never expected her boy would be fighting for his life just days later.
Just as he’s done so many weekends before, Liam Flanagan spent January 13 playing on his bicycle in the driveway of his family’s home in Pilot Rock, Oregon. But as he was careening down the hill that Saturday, Liam crashed into the dirt, and his bike’s handlebar cut through his jeans, causing a deep laceration on his thigh.
He was quickly taken by family to a nearby emergency room, where doctors gave the second-grader seven stitches to close his wound and sent him on his way. Though the cut was painful, doctors felt it was minor enough not to give Liam antibiotics, Hebard says, and they fully expected for him to recover. Still, Hebard said her son kept complaining about a continuous ache around the area of his gash in the days that followed.
“He said it hurt, but it was his very first accident and he never had stitches before,” Hebard, 37, tells PEOPLE of Liam, who she says always had a smile that made others smile. “I don’t think he was complaining any more than other kid would when they had their first stitches.”
Hebard and Liam’s step-father, Scott Hinkle, gave Liam Tylenol to soothe his discomfort over the next three days, but the pain grew increasingly unbearable for the young boy. That’s when the couple examined Liam’s thigh and groin-area and saw they had become gravely discolored.
“My husband instantly freaked,” Hebard recalls. “He immediately said Liam had gangrene and he needed to go to the emergency room — and straight to the emergency room we went.”
The couple rushed Liam to the hospital where he underwent emergency surgery to remove the infected tissue.
The next morning, Liam was airlifted from the small town hospital to Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland, where doctors performed multiple surgeries, amputating more and more of the boy’s body to stay ahead of the infection that was making its way through his tissue.
“Each time they did a surgery, they kept telling us that they thought they got it,” Hebard says. “He was on three of the highest doses of antibiotics that you could get. They were pouring everything at them that they could, but they just kept cutting and hoping. Cutting and hoping.”
Doctors discovered Liam had contracted a rare flesh-eating bacteria known as necrotizing fasciitis, which they believe entered Liam’s body through his wound from the soil he landed on.
Necrotizing fasciitis quickly kills the body’s soft tissue found around muscles, nerves, fat, and blood vessels and it can turn lethal in a short period of time, according to the Centers For Disease Control. Since 2010, about 600 to 1,200 Americans are diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis each year, though the CDC notes this may be an underestimate.
The infection can be successfully treated with antibiotics and surgery to remove infected tissue if it’s caught early, which is important to a patient’s survival. According to an NCBI study, the infection has about a 27 percent mortality rate.
Liam’s doctors worked hard to control the infected area that stretched from ankle to armpit.
“The pain was so bad that he was screaming,” Hebard says. “It’s horrific. It is a horrific torture, that’s what it is. The last things I got to hear from my son was him screaming because it hurt so bad.”
Doctors soon placed Liam under sedation and life support, and on January 21, they transferred him to Randall Children’s Hospital to be examined by another medical team. About a half-hour later, doctors informed Hebard that they had “done everything that they could do,” and Liam passed away later that day. Before the accident, Liam—who Hebard says was a “ray of sunshine” who was loved by so many—was a completely healthy boy.
Today, Hebard is warning other families to watch for the symptoms of necrotizing fasciitis, such as chills, fever, fatigue and vomiting. A key sign, she says, is if a cut or a swollen area on the body is more painful than what is expected.
The family set up a GoFundMe account to help with expenses, and it has raised $16,000 so far.
“Even though this is my worst nightmare, I want to believe his death had a reason, it had a purpose. Maybe it’s to save other’s lives, because no one deserves to go through what we went through,” Hebard says through tears. “Hold your babies tight and listen to them. Just pay attention, and don’t just pass things off as if things will be okay.”