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Oregon man recovers from plague, but may lose fingers, toes

July 18, 2012|By Kim Murphy
  • Paul Gaylord, with a blackened hand, recovers from the plague at a hospital in Bend, Ore.
Paul Gaylord, with a blackened hand, recovers from the plague at a hospital… (Gaylord family )

SEATTLE -- In the category of no good deed goes unpunished comes the tale of Paul Gaylord, the Prineville, Ore., man who tried to save a cat choking on a mouse and is now painfully recovering from a case of the plague.

Oregon health officials have said there is no public health emergency — the disease that wiped out a third of Europe during the Middle Ages does not appear to have spread — but Gaylord just barely survived, and is likely to lose the better part of his fingers and toes to the disease.

The 59-year-old welder faces surgery this week to remove the extremities that have become oozy and blackened from the gangrenous ravages of the disease. At one point, he was on life support after his heart stopped and a lung collapsed, prompting the hospital chaplain to perform a baptism ceremony as Gaylord lay unconscious and dying.

“They tell me I’m doing really good considering,” Gaylord told the Oregonian last week in a telephone interview from his hospital bed. “I do feel lucky. I’m going to have a long row to hoe, but at least I have one.”

State health officials said the welder’s illness was the fourth documented case of the plague — which persists at low levels through much of the U.S., especially in the Southwest — since 2010.

Cases across the U.S. average seven a year, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which said the last urban plague epidemic in the United States occurred in Los Angeles from 1924 to 1925.

The Oregon drama started early in June, when Gaylord saw a stray cat he’d taken in choking on a mouse. He and a friend attempted to pull the rodent out of the back of the cat’s throat, but Gaylord got bitten by the cat in the process. He finally had to shoot the animal to put it out of its misery.

Two days later, Gaylord came down with a fever and chills. According to the Associated Press, a doctor at a local urgent care clinic diagnosed him with cat scratch fever and sent him home with some medicine, but a few days later, Gaylord was worse, and the lymph node under his armpit had swollen as big as a lemon.

The clinic sent him by ambulance to the hospital, where a doctor diagnosed him with the plague, and sent him on to a bigger hospital in Bend, Ore., where he spent nearly a month on life support. Doctors say he showed symptoms of two forms of the plague, both bubonic and septicemic. (The third, and least-common, is pneumonic.)

His condition was so bad that the family summoned his son from Texas to bid him farewell. “We were planning his demise,” his sister, Diana Gaylord, told the Oregonian.

Then Gaylord started improving.

State health officials say they believe the cat was likely infected with the plague by a flea, often carried on rodents such as mice.

Oregon state public health veterinarian Emilio DeBess said authorities immediately began some detailed detective work.

“We went out and talked to the family to clarify the story as to what happened, and also to take a look at the area and look for either dead rodents or any other dead wildlife that could give us any information at all as to the possibility of there being a bigger problem in that area,” DeBess said in an interview.

“We also went to the local humane society and collected blood from cats that had been picked up in the area,” he said.

All the blood samples came back negative, which suggested there was no widespread problem to worry about.

“Is it here? Yes. Is it present at a low level? Yes, it is. There are obviously prevention tips we give individuals to try to minimize the likelihood of contact with an animal infected with plague or fleas,” he said.

For Gaylord, it’s too late — he’ll likely give a pass to the next cat he sees choking on a mouse. For everyone else, here’s what Oregon state health officials advise as precautions:

-Avoid sick or dead rodents, rabbits and squirrels, and their nests and burrows

-Keep your pets from roaming and hunting.

-Talk to your veterinarian about using an appropriate flea control product on your pets.

-Clean up areas near the house where rodents could live, such as woodpiles, brush piles, junk and abandoned vehicles.

-Sick pets should be examined promptly by a veterinarian.

-See your doctor about any unexplained illness involving a sudden and severe fever.

-Put hay, wood, and compost piles as far as possible from your home.

-Don’t leave your pet’s food and water where mice can get to it.

-Veterinarians and their staff are at higher risk and should take precautions when seeing suspect animal plague cases.

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Follow Kim on Twitter @kimmurphy. Email: kim.murphy@latimes.com

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