PORTLAND, Ore. – One look at Paul Gaylord’s hands shows why the plague is referred to as Black Death.
The welder’s once-strong hands have been withered by the cell-killing infection and darkened to the color of charcoal. Doctors are waiting to see whether they can save a portion of his fingers, but the outlook is grim for the man who needs them for his livelihood.
I don’t think I can do my job, Gaylord said in a phone interview from a Bend, Ore., hospital. I’m going to lose all my fingers on both hands. I don’t know about my thumbs. The toes – I might lose all them, too.
Gaylord, 59, contracted a rare case of the plague trying to take a mouse from the jaws of a choking cat in Prineville, in rural Oregon.
He faces a difficult recovery now that he’s out of intensive care. His family is trying to raise money to get him into a new house, because the manufactured home he was living in has a leaky roof, a moldy bathroom and mice – risky living conditions for a man with a weak immune system.
We didn’t even know the plague was around anymore, said his sister, Diana Gaylord.
The bacterium that causes the plague is spread by fleas, which can infect people and animals. The illness that killed millions in the Middle Ages is rare today.
Gaylord’s illness began after he saw a stray cat with a dead mouse jammed in the back of his throat. The cat appeared to be choking, so Gaylord attempted to dislodge the mouse.
The distressed cat bit his hand. Unable to remove the mouse, Gaylord shot the cat to end its suffering and buried him in the yard. Two days later, he awoke with a fever and chills.
Diana Gaylord said her brother dripped with sweat and his lymph nodes swelled.
He had a lump under his arm swollen almost as big as a lemon.
Gaylord spent nearly a month on life support and only recently left the intensive care unit.
The cat’s body was dug up, and tests confirmed it had the plague.
Gaylord is slowly getting better. He is now able to take strolls through the hospital with the aid of a walker, and the family hopes he can return home by October.