David Bennett, a 66-year-old Memphis man, died July 7 two days after swimming in local waters. His daughter is circulating a petition asking for warning signs to be posted at local beaches.
NICEVILLE — On Aug. 7, the one-month anniversary of her father's death, Cheryl Bennett Wiygul took her family to the beach.
She doesn't want her children or the general public to be afraid, even though her father's death from vibrio vulnificusibrio after swimming in local waters was highly publicized.
David Bennett, who was 66 when he passed away at a Memphis hospital, fell ill at the end of a visit to Wiygul's Niceville home. During his vacation, they swam in Rocky Bayou, Turkey Creek and the Gulf of Mexico. Vibrio is a naturally occurring bacteria in some bodies of water. It is sometimes referred to as flesh-eating bacteria.
While most people are fine, those with a compromised immune system or open wounds are at an increased risk Wiygul has since learned.
She has written a petition on change.org, which already has nearly 1,000 signatures, to have signs posted at public beaches to warn those with weakened immune systems or open wounds.
But she's not sure what to do next. She is new to the business of advocating for change, but assumes her next step is writing to legislators.
And she disagrees with those who accuse her of inciting fear.
"Signs would increase awareness," she said, adding that it's stories of people falling ill or dying that cause panic. Signs, she said, will help prevent that.
"You wouldn't hear these stories that scare people. You don't want to scare people away from the beach."
Her father, who battled cancer for 18 years, was healthy enough to travel, swim and go on long walks, but he did have a weakened immune system.
Every day since her father died, Wiygul has blamed herself for not recognizing the risk. Before he and her mother arrived, she changed the air conditioning filter and sprayed the house down with Lysol.
She said that had she or her mother realized the danger, they could have kept him safe.
"I never thought swimming would hurt him," she said. "I feel so stupid. My father wouldn't want me to blame myself. I know that. I really can't help it."
On Friday, July 5, the last full day of their visit, the family went jet skiing in Rocky Bayou. They had checked him before he went in the water and he had no open wounds. But 12 hours later, he woke up with a fever and pain in his legs. A large open sore appeared on his back.
And by Sunday, he was dead.
Wiygul has since learned that that health department-sponsored water testing doesn't screen for vibrio and that inland waters like bays or bayous may have higher levels than larger bodies of water like the Gulf of Mexico.
In the wake of her father's death, she has been criticized by strangers and patronized, as well, by people who assume that he had just succumbed to his long battle with cancer. The mother of five has struggled with guilt and grief and all of their variations.
"It's the first thing I think about when I wake up," she said. "It keeps me up at night. Every quiet minute of the day I'm thinking about it."