Belen Fire Chief Wayne Gallegos had a near fatal encounter last week with what doctors believe was a brown recluse spider.

Gallegos spent more than a week in an Albuquerque hospital before coming home Friday morning. During his stay at Anna Kaseman Hospital, Gallegos was being treated for a severe infection in his right leg, which his doctors suspect was caused by a poisonous spider bite.

“I’m feeling better now,” Gallegos said in a telephone interview. “I just want to get well.”

Gallegos is expected to be away from his post for at least six weeks while he recovers. He said that, when he was first admitted into the hospital last Thursday, doctors told him the infection could be fatal.

The toxins from the spider bite traveled into the soft tissue of his right leg causing the leg to swell to several times its normal size.

“They told me it was very dangerous, and told me they might have to amputate my leg,” Gallegos said in a telephone interview from his hospital bed Thursday. “They kept working on it with aggressive antibiotics. It finally got to where it wasn’t spreading, and now they’re telling me I might need skin grafts.”

Gallegos said his doctors are treating the infection the same way they treat an internal chemical burn.

The fire chief says he’s not exactly sure when he was bitten by the spider, but he suspects it was when he was at a fire scene on West Aragon Road last Monday morning. While at the fire, Gallegos had been walking through weeds looking for evidence related to the blaze.

Gallegos said he didn’t feel the spider bite, but his symptoms and the red spot all pointed to a reaction from a venomous bite from a brown recluse spider.

Several hours after returning to the fire station, Gallegos said, he started to feel ill. “The crew checked me at the fire station, and my vital signs were a little off,” he said. “I felt a chill, and I thought I was just getting a cold.”

Gallegos said he went home and crawled into his recliner. “I felt like I was getting worse,” he said. “The vein around my knee started to hurt, but I didn’t pay attention because I was feeling so bad.”

A few hours later, Gallegos’s family came home to find him burning with fever and having difficulty breathing. His wife, Mary Jane, told him his lips were blue.

“I asked my daughter, April, to take off my shoe, and she found a red spot just above my ankle,” Gallegos said. “The spot was about the size of a 50-cent coin. That’s when I realized something must have bit me.”

Without hesitation, Galle-gos’s wife called for rescue to check him out. When they arrived, they found Gallegos’s vital signs had skyrocketed. He had a fever of 103 degrees, and his blood pressure was elevated.

They transported the chief to Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque where he was stabilized and treated with intravenous antibiotics. After a few hours, Gallegos left the hospital, feeling better.

For the next two days, the fire chief went to his doctor in Belen, where he was given more antibiotics for the infection. Gallegos said his leg began to swell on Wednesday, making it hard for him to walk.

By Thursday morning, Gallegos’s fever returned, and he started feeling worse. His crew of paramedics rushed him to Albuquerque, but, when he arrived at Presbyterian Hospital, they diverted him to Anna Kaseman.

Although Gallegos’s prognosis has improved over the past week, he said he was really concerned what the consequences might have been if he hadn’t been treated.

In the meantime, Assistant Fire Chief Skip Mills is taking over Gallegos’s duties at the fire station.

“The mood has been very melancholy here because we almost lost him,” Mills said. “He’s very precious to all of us. We’re a family here, and he’s the patriarch of our family. He’s like a father to all of us.”

Gallegos said from his hospital bed that he already missed being out helping people. “It’s hard to stop all at once when you’re so used to being out there all the time,” he said. “I just want to thank everyone for their support.”

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Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.