Five years ago, Bryan Cuerrier was fighting for his life in an intensive care unit as flesh-eating disease ravaged his body.

Cuerrier would lose both legs and part of his left arm, but that hasn't stopped the 57-year-old from Belleville, Ont., from doing a half-marathon (21.1 kilometres) this weekend at the Canada Army Run in Ottawa.

Cuerrier may be one of the last of 25,000 runners to finish, but could be one of the first triple amputees to do so.

"Bryan is the only triple amputee I have known to walk with prostheses," says Marty Robertson, Cuerrier's prosthetist.

Fell ill in 2010

In May 2010, Cuerrier went for a weekend run with his girlfriend (and now wife) Marijo Cuerrier. It would be his last able-bodied run.

bryan cuerrier

Marijo Cuerrier says before Bryan got sick he was thinking of doing his first half marathon. She says when he finishes the race on Sunday it will symbolize taking part of his life back. (Family photo)

Over that weekend, he developed a pain in his leg and mild flu-like symptoms. When he didn't show up for work early that week, his boss became concerned and called Marijo.

"We found Bryan in his house alone, completely delirious. His lips were blue, the fingertips on both of his hands were blue," Marijo said.

Cuerrier was transferred from Belleville to Kingston, Ont., where, over the next 24 hours, his condition became critical. He had necrotizing fasciitis, or flesh-eating disease, and amputation would be the only way to save his life.

Over seven surgeries, Cuerrier lost his left leg at the hip, his right leg below the knee, his left arm below the elbow and all five of his right fingertips.

'Very aggressive infection'

Necrotizing fasciitis is "a very aggressive infection" of the soft tissues below the skin, says Dr. Nick Daneman, an infectious disease specialist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and assistant professor at the University of Toronto.

"[It's] able to spread very rapidly below the surface," says Daneman. "And by the time it's detected it's very, very extensive."

The infection is most commonly related to Group A streptococcus, bacteria that can range from causing no symptoms at all, to strep throat and ear infections, to invasive infections like necrtizing fasciitis, less commonly.

Often multiple surgeries are required to remove the dead tissue caused by the infection, and amputation is a life-saving measure if there is no other way to get the infection under control, says Daneman.

Months of rehabilitation

After Cuerrier lost his legs and arm, he spent months undergoing intensive rehabilitation to learn to walk again using prosthetics.

But Cuerrier didn't stop there. "He wanted to find for himself what his real limits were, not the ones others were telling him," says Marie Andree Paquin, his physical therapist at the Ottawa Hospital Rehabilitation Centre, who will be doing the half-marathon with Cuerrier.

Using their Computer-Assisted Rehabilitation Environment (CAREN) lab, which uses 3D graphics, a moving platform and a remote-controlled treadmill to create a safe virtual reality environment, Cuerrier pushed himself further.

"He always wanted to try the next step, the harder version," Paquin says. "He always did things with
a smile."

Family, medical team will be at finish line

Athletic events like the half-marathon have become the focus of Cuerrier's recovery. He finished a 10-kilometre race this spring, and after five months of training has set his sights on this weekend in Ottawa.

Robertson, who will also be racing with Cuerrier on Sunday, has been seeing him almost weekly during his training to adjust components of his durable light-weight prosthetics.

"His ability to walk as well as he does, has [a] great deal to do with his motivation and attitude," says Robertson.

When he reaches the finish line on Sunday, he'll be surrounded by Marijo, his family his friends and his medical specialists. A soldier will be there to place a medal around his neck.

Cuerrier, who was planning to run a half-marathon before he fell ill, says that while necrotizing fasciitis has taken many things from him, it hasn't taken everything.

"I view this race," he says, "as something I get to claim back."

Dr. Joelene Huber is a journalism fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs in Toronto.