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Five months ago, a rare flesh-eating disease left Buffalo Police Officer Thomas Cino a feeble man.

During his recovery at home, it was painful for him to walk on crutches from his living room couch to his chair -- just a few feet away.

Today, Cino is fully recovered and is back on the job, patrolling the Northwest District. He has regained his 240-pound bodybuilding frame and is sturdy enough to run a mile.

Cino had necrotizing fasciitis -- a bacterial infection that chewed away layers of tissue around the muscle of his upper right thigh, leaving him with a concave wound that was three-eighths-of-an-inch deep.

The flesh-eating bacteria could have caused his death within 12 to 24 hours, but Cino defied the odds and quietly returned to work Tuesday.

"I didn't have to come to work yet," said Cino, a 14-year veteran of the force. "My family all thought it was too early, but I felt in my heart that I wanted to be back in the saddle. . . . The police force is like a second family to me."

Cino has been quick to jump into the fray. In his first few days back on duty, he answered calls ranging from domestic disputes to gun calls.

"He's always been gung-ho. He was like that before he got sick," said a colleague, Officer Jose Vega. "He's one of the guys here who are really dedicated to performing his job. He's really an inspiration."

After his June 8 surgery to remove the infected tissue, he spent three weeks in the hospital before he was released June 29.

Within a week, he was visiting a physiotherapist where he did stretching, exercising, electrical stimulation and ultrasound therapy, where high-energy sound waves were used to help ease the painful joints and muscles on his right leg.

Meanwhile, at his Grand Island home, he walked every day, three times a day, working his way from crutches, to a cane, to a limp.

Last week, the 38-year-old Buffalo native was still taking antibiotics, experiencing soreness on his right knee and ankle and feeling tired halfway through his day shift.

He also remains prone to infections because of a removed lymph node. Two weeks ago, he spent three days in the hospital for an infection that gave him red blotches on his right leg and flu-like symptoms.

Cino said he does not know how he contracted the disease, a form of group A streptococcus which is the same bacteria that causes strep throat. The bacteria can be spread through close personal contact such as kissing or enter the skin through the site of a small cut, bruise or no obvious source of infection.

After he used up his vacation time in July, he was forced to take an unpaid leave of absence from his job but was able to survive thanks to donations from police officers, neighbors and community members. About 600 people also attended a fund-raising party and silent auction held in August in his honor. Cino proudly shows the hundreds of get-well cards he has received -- some of them from strangers.

One of them is from a Buffalo man who included a check and wrote: "I don't know you but you're from Buffalo and that's all that matters. God Bless."

Another was sent from a woman who thanked Cino for helping her mom after she was struck by a car while crossing Delaware and Hertel avenues Dec. 10, 2002.

"Not only did your quick actions save my mom's life, the compassion you showed by visiting her at the hospital the next day touched us," she wrote. "I'm honored to be able to make this donation to such an exceptional man."

He even got a surprise phone call from his favorite artist, country music legend Garth Brooks, who left a 1 1/2 -minute voice-mail message wishing him well and telling Cino that he is in his prayers. The call was orchestrated by the Rev. Joseph F. Moreno, a former Buffalo police chaplain.

Cino said he was taken aback by the celebrity call and the generosity of Western New Yorkers.

"I can't thank everyone enough for the support, care and love I received. I'll never forget them," said Cino, who sent each contributor a personalized thank-you note.

"I'm just so blessed to be here because this can be so deadly."


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