By Wally Kennedy
JOPLIN, Mo. —
When he was asked whether he wanted to help tow some of the thousands of vehicles that were destroyed in the May 22, 2011, tornado in Joplin, Mike Forest jumped at the chance.
“The day after the tornado, he was there,’’ said his wife, Dina, of Olathe, Kan. “It was the third week he was there that it happened.’’
Forest awoke one morning to a blood-stained pillow from a nosebleed he did not know had happened. His shins were covered with blisters up to his knees. He had an excruciating headache.
He is now in the Shawnee Mission Medical Center in the Kansas City area, where doctors are trying to find out why he became ill and why he is still ill. His most recent tests include a spinal tap to determine whether he was exposed to something toxic.
“He’s very sick. He describes it as someone taking a spoon and raking his bones. He has a headache that just disables him,’’ said his wife in a recent telephone interview. “No one has a clue. If we don’t get some answers here, we’re going to the Mayo Clinic next. He can’t go on like this.’’
Now, more than 16 months after the tornado and a raft of inconclusive medical tests, it has become the curious case of Mike Forest.
For months after the storm, local health officials looked for emerging diseases that could be attributed to the tornado.
Early on, health care providers treating tornado victims identified a rare fungus that was sickening people. The disease had been reported after previous natural disasters, including the tsunami in Japan, but Joplin would become the first known cluster occurring after a tornado, according to a report by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Mucormycosis is a rare infection caused by a fungus that is typically found in soil, decaying wood and other organic matter. All of the victims had wounds in which wood splinters were a factor.
A CDC team that came to Joplin identified 18 suspected cases of the fungal infection, of which 13 were confirmed. Five deaths were linked to the fungus. None of the cases involved workers in the tornado zone.
Because of those cases, local health officials were watching closely for emerging diseases.
“We had our ears open to anything that might pop up,” said Dan Pekarek, director of the Joplin Health Department. “We had the fungus, and we had some reports about the tornado cough. But the cough had a lot to do with the heat, allergies and dust in the air. There was nothing else locally.’’
The department used air-monitoring equipment, provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to check for asbestos and other airborne substances in the tornado zone that might adversely affect public health. The monitoring revealed no threats.
Pekarek said he had heard about a case where a man from the Kansas City area had become ill, but he had no way of contacting him. He later heard that the man had been diagnosed with Lyme disease, a tick-borne illness.
Dina Forest believes the man Pekarek had heard about was her husband.
“He was tested for Lyme disease,” she said of her husband. “It came back positive the first time. But a second test was negative. He also was tested for West Nile (virus). It came back positive. He had been exposed to it sometime in the past. The doctors say he does not have the symptoms for an active case of West Nile.’’
Pekarek said he is unaware of any other person who has become ill from working in the tornado zone. What Dina Forest would like to know is whether there are any other tornado-zone workers in the same condition as her husband.
“Mike has always been very active and healthy. He does not remember having a headache in his life,’’ she said. “He was very fit. He enjoyed camping, hunting and fishing.’’
Forest said she and her husband, who is 43, have been together since high school.
“He was a painter who had been laid off in November (2010),’’ she said. “When his friend with a tow truck called him to go and see what they could do, he was literally packing his bags. He did not think twice about it.
“We had seen on TV what had happened to Joplin,’’ she said. “We sat and watched the news the night it happened. We cried in disbelief. He felt so good about himself to be able to go there and help.’’
Forest worked 14-hour days at various places in the tornado zone, towing vehicles from houses, trees and fields — wherever the tornado had tossed them — for the first week or so, his wife said.
“His main plan in the second week was to go to the hospital (St. John’s Regional Medical Center) and recover vehicles out of the hospital,’’ she said. “He went to the hospital, but the haz-mat (hazardous material) crews were still going in there. They turned him away for several days.
“By the fourth day, these guys dressed in haz-mat suits said they were ready to start doing the parking lot,’’ she said. “It was the week after that he woke up with the nosebleed and blisters. He felt like his head was being crushed. He slept that whole day.’’
Forest went to a makeshift hospital operated by St. John’s. He was diagnosed with the flu. He was given some medications, told to stay hydrated and to get some rest.
“He went back to where he was staying to sleep it off,” his wife said. “He slept for four days — not knowing that he slept for four days. The blisters started to go away, and he felt like he was on the mend. He went back to work. That’s when a volunteer called me and told me: ‘I’m bringing your husband home. He is unable to do anything.’’’
His wife said they are now testing Forest for things they don’t normally test for.
“They have done tons of tests,” she said. “We have two infectious disease doctors on his case right now. We have been together since we were 16. I’ve never seen him sick. It’s heart wrenching. We’re spending our 20-year anniversary together in the hospital.
“I keep telling him they are going to figure this out one way or another. My husband never gives up. He’s a fighter. But he told me last week: ‘I can’t live like this anymore.’
“He thinks he will wake up one day, and he’ll be OK. I think he is giving up on that idea.’’
The Forests have medical insurance through Dina Forest’s employer, but the hospital bills are piling up. A trust account has been set up for donations with any Bank of America. The account name is “The Forest Family Road to Recovery.” A Facebook page, “Help Mike Forest Find A Cure,’’ has been set up.