Oregon Man to Lose Fingers From Black Plague, 'Lucky' to Be Alive

Paul Gaylord contracted the "medieval" disease while rescuing an infected cat.

ByABC News
July 18, 2012, 4:45 PM

July 19, 2012— -- Doctors will amputate an Oregon man's fingers and his toes next week, which were ravaged by the black plague, an infection prevalent in medieval times that is rarely seen in the U.S. today.

Paul Gaylord, 59, is recovering at the St. Charles Medical Center in Bend, Ore., after he contracted the plague in early June, said his niece, Andrea Gibb.

"We all thought it was crazy," Gibb said. "Even the doctors thought, 'No way, it can't be.' They did not think at all. It was like turning a page in a book," Gibb said.

Only five to 10 cases of the plague occur each year in the United States, predominantly in the southwestern part of the country, said Sue Straley, a professor at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine and an expert on the plague, making it more "rare" to have a case in the Pacific Northwest.

The infectious disease is carried by fleas and can infect humans and animals, Straley said.

In Gaylord's case, he contracted the disease from his family cat, Charlie, when he tried to remove something bulging from the cat's throat.

Gaylord reached into the animal's mouth to remove the bulge, which turned out to be a rodent, Gibb said.

When he was unable to dislodge the mouse, Charlie "lashed out" at Gaylord, "attacking him," said Gibb.

Gaylord shot Charlie to end the animal's suffering and buried the pet, who had "been a part of the family and was loved" for six years, in his yard, Gibb said.

Two days later, Gaylord awoke with "flu-like symptoms."

Gibb said he visited a doctor, who diagnosed him with cat scratch fever and advised him to return if his symptoms worsened.

A few days later, they did.

"He was pale as a ghost and sweat was dripping off of him," Gibb said.

Gaylord was taken to the the hospital, where his family was told he was "in grave condition" and his organs were beginning to fail.

The cat was dug up from Gaylord's yard and tested positive for the plague, the Crook County Health Department confirmed.

Gaylord spent a month in the intensive care unit at the St. Charles Medical Center in Bend, and is now recovering at the hospital.

Gaylord will no longer be able to continue his work as a welder, but he's very optimistic and knows he is lucky to be alive.

"He is so positive. He's very positive, eating and exercising his hands and fingers, trying to move them. He's just happy to be alive," Gibb said.

The family is hoping to raise money to build Gaylord a new house on his existing property, since his current residence, a single-wide trailer, has a host of problems that could be a threat to his weakened immune system.

"There are rodent droppings on the counter, roof leaks, the ceiling panels are falling off the walls," Gibb said.

Although cases of the plague are rare and they are usually transmitted to humans through a flea bite, Straley, the plague expert, said Gaylord is particularly lucky.

"Given he got sick so quickly, he certainly very lucky he's alive," she said. "It's the timing that I kind of focus on. He probably had a high dose of bacteria that got in at the beginning."

The Black Death that killed 50 million Europeans six centuries ago is the ancestor of "all the modern plagues we have today worldwide," said the scientists who decoded its entire genetic structure from the teeth of long-dead Londoners.

Straley said despite the small number of cases today, there are steps people can take to help prevent contracting the disease.

"In the Southwest, where it is more endemic, if you're going out into the wild, particularly where there are rodents that are known to carry the plague, you ought to tuck your pants in your boots," she said. "It's important to take precautions against a flea bite."

ABC News' Jane Allen contributed to this report.