Wayne Gallegos gives new meaning to the saying “You can’t keep a good man down.”
Several weeks after the Belen fire chief was bitten by a dangerous spider, Gallegos has recovered and is back on his feet once again, working to protect the community.
Gallegos was bitten on his right leg by what doctors suspects was either a brown recluse spider or a member of the same species. The fire chief said he probably was bitten while out at a fire scene on April 22.
Six weeks after he was released from the hospital, Gallegos is back at the fire department, with a new perspective on his life and his community.
Help came from people he knew to people he didn’t and from people from out of town who heard about what happened to him to people who had similar experiences — they were all ready and willing to help Gallegos.
“I learned that, when bad things happened, you find a lot of good in people,” Gallegos said. “Through this, I found all these people — some that I know and some that I didn’t — came out, called and wished me well. I literally received hundreds of phone calls.”
He was also delighted when he received dozens of cards with hand-drawn spiders from students at Jaramillo Elementary who wished him well.
When Gallegos initially entered the hospital, the doctors weren’t sure about his prognosis. The infection had spread and had traveled into his muscle. He said the infection got so bad that the doctors weren’t sure if they were going to have to amputate his leg.
“They flat out told me they might have to cut it below the knee,” he said. “Right then, I knew I had to get better. It was an awful feeling.”
Through extensive wound care, Gallegos also eluded painful skin grafts to help repair the skin on his calf. Instead, the fire chief had to go through several de-breeding procedures to help produce new skin.
“They scraped it off with a razor,” Gallegos said. “They had to pull it (dead skin) off to get to the good skin.”
While in the hospital, Gallegos turned out to be quite the celebrity. During visits from hospital staff from different departments, Gallegos said, he would joke about his condition.
“I told everyone in the hospital it wasn’t just a little spider,” he said. “I told them that, in Belen, they (spiders) were as big as rabbits. It was funny because they actually believed me.”
After eight days of hospitalization, Gallegos was released to the care of his wife, Mary Jane, who was trained on how to treat her husband at home. While at home, he had a schedule where he would hop to the shower, hop back, and his wife would dress his wound and administer his intravenous antibiotics.
“She was an excellent nurse,” Gallegos said. “When I was in the hospital, she would see what they (nurses) were doing, and she started changing the dressings. She learned really fast.”
Day by day, Gallegos started getting better. The swelling on his leg slowly decreased and after about a month, he was back on his feet.
“I was grounded,” Gallegos said. “I couldn’t do anything. But, it hurt so much that I just had to do it. I had to stay that way if I wanted to get well. That’s what I kept thinking — I have to do it and do it full force.”
As the weeks went by and the fire chief’s condition improved, he visited the second grade students who sent him the cards.
“I wasn’t all the way well, but well enough to where I was walking,” he said. “When I walked in, they were very excited. Sure enough, they asked if they could see my leg.”
Kids are not the only people who are interested in Gallegos’ leg. He said adults have also expressed their interest in seeing his injury and are not shy about teasing him by calling him Spiderman.
“People will come up to me and ask me, ‘How are you doing Spiderman?’ or ‘Do you know how to spin webs yet?” It just so happened when that darn movie came out,” Gallegos laughed.
Gallegos, who has been back to work for about three weeks, said he was anxious to return. Although he can’t stay on his feet as long as he used to, the fire chief said he’s glad to be back.
Now that he’s back at the fire station, he’s taking advice from everyone who is telling him to slow down.
After this experience, he said, he has learned to do things a little differently.
“Before, I had do what I had to do,” Gallegos said. “I realized there’s going to be a tomorrow and things will get done.”
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.