A young East Patchogue firefighter went home from a hospital Friday after losing his left leg -- but not his life -- to a flesh-eating bacteria.
"He was one of the most ill patients I ever took care of. He was as close to death as a human being could be," Dr. Louis Riina said as Ralph Lettieri Jr. sat in a wheelchair next to him at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow.
Moments earlier, relatives and members of the Hagerman Fire Department -- lining a sixth-floor corridor -- applauded as Lettieri emerged from the burn unit, using a walker.
"I just want to get back to the life I had before," Lettieri, 26, who works for his father's construction company, said at a news conference with his doctors and family.
He said he was exposed to poison ivy and developed an infection in late July after scuba diving in a freshwater quarry.
"I'm assuming somehow the bacteria must have been in there and it just got into the open sore and went from there," he said.
The infection was caused by necrotizing fasciitis, a rare flesh-eating bacteria that can be fatal, doctors said. To stop its spread, they had to amputate his left leg above the knee on Aug. 11, after consulting with his family.
"I told them, 'You can have the leg, but you have to save his life,' " his father, Ralph Lettieri Sr., said, his voice choked with emotion. The father draped one arm over Riina and the other over Dr. Paul Scott, the surgeon.
Father and son thanked the doctors, nurses and physical therapists, the firefighters who raised money for Ralph Lettieri Jr.'s treatment and the others who cooked and cleaned.
"The down moment would be when I finally woke up and realized that my leg was missing," Ralph Lettieri Jr. said. "That was a bit of a shock, obviously. After a couple of days, I just began to accept it. This is the life that I'm going to live."
He has an appointment Tuesday to begin the process of getting a prosthetic leg.
At home, he's joined by his 3-year-old son, Jordan, and fiancee, Victoria Vazquez.
The future is less certain.
He intends to do "whatever the leg lets me do -- work, the firehouse, everything I did before. Just living life to the fullest. It's a new lease on life.
"God wants me here. He wants me to keep going and never give up."