Scott Donahue of rural Park Rapids who lives on Potato Lake was diagnosed with blastomycosis in March, and is still recovering.
The fungus thrives in a wet environment and is often found near rivers or lakes, according to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) website, entering the lungs when breathing in spores.
Dog died last year
Donahue’s son, Max, had a yellow Lab named Buck on the property, who was diagnosed with blastomycosis in the summer of 2018.
“He was put on the antifungal drug Itraconazole, but died about two months after he was diagnosed,” Donahue said.
The disease progressed rapidly.
“He was only about a year old and went from being 90 pounds, really strong and in good shape to a hacking cough, vomiting a clear, white foamy fluid and convulsing,” Donahue said.
“The dog was outside a lot, chasing squirrels and running down to my dock. I have lakeshore and river. The river flows from Island Lake into Eagle Lake and from Eagle Lake into Potato Lake. I live on about five acres surrounded by trees and water, but there’s been no soil disturbance or excavating. I don’t have a garden, just a lot of woods.”
From diagnosis to hospitalization
Donahue said he developed severe bouts of coughing in late March.
“I didn’t have a high fever, just a couple degrees over what it should be, but on the third day I was coughing so hard I started to puke,” he said. “After about three or four days, I went to the Essentia walk-in clinic. I’m kinda stubborn, so I put off going to the doctor as long as I could. They did a chest X-ray. A couple of days after that I got a letter from the doctor saying I had fluid in both of my lungs, so they assumed it was pneumonia and gave me one of those Z-Pack (antibiotic) deals.”
After five days of antibiotics, Donahue didn’t feel any better.
“I was in bed and just miserable, he said. “A day or two later, my son called the ambulance.”
Donahue was taken to CHI St. Joseph’s Health and transferred Essentia Hospital in Fargo once pneumonia was ruled out. A specialist at Essentia diagnosed the blastomycosis.
Donahue said he doesn’t understand how he came down with the disease at the end of March, since the ground had been frozen and snow-covered for months.
“I don’t know where I contracted it,” he said. “I work at a parts store, and I’m not around soil. I hadn’t been down to my dock for a long time because of the snow, and I quit boating in September. ”
He said because he has diabetes, he was told his immune system may not have been able to fight off the disease.
Lucky to be alive
“I was on a ventilator three different times because I couldn’t breathe,” Donahue said. “I also had a tracheotomy, a kidney biopsy and a feeding tube and was hospitalized for three months. They told my kids the second time I was on the ventilator they should get my family together because I probably wasn’t going to make it. It’s a really serious thing and I’m lucky to be here.”
He said he was on multiple drugs to manage pain and the symptoms of the disease, with lots of tubes hooked up. At one point, a trach was put in so he couldn’t even speak. Rolling over on his left side made him cough uncontrollably.
“I literally was in the same position in my hospital bed for almost three months,” he said. “My back still hurts. I lost 40 pounds. I used to weigh 175 and have pretty good size arm muscles. I use a walker and a cane, look like a twig and have almost no muscle tone. I turned 50 in the hospital.”
His twin sons, Max and Mason, took on the responsibility for making decisions about his care.
Recovery a lengthy process
Donahue said he started feeling better in mid-June, and was released from the hospital July 2.
His sons moved home from Iowa so they could take care of their dad.
“They gave me an antifungal drug I’m supposed to take for a year,” he said.
A physical therapist helped him regain some strength, but he said he still has a long way to go.
His Type 2 diabetes progressed from pills to insulin shots. “I don’t know what the connection is,” he said. “They say blastomycosis affects the nervous system, and I have tingling in my little fingers.”
Donahue said he was in a motorcycle wreck in 2006, suffering a fractured skull and shattered ankle.
“That took a long time to recover because of a traumatic brain injury,” he said. “I can’t pick and choose my battles, but I would take that motorcycle wreck again any day over this blastomycosis, as far as the pain. I was in the hospital after the motorcycle wreck for six weeks, and with blastomycosis it was over three months.”
Concerned about the future
Donahue said he received a phone call from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) asking questions about where he might have been exposed.
Malia Ireland, an epidemiologist at MDH, said, there are 45 cases of humans with blastomycosis this year in the state, a 28 percent increase from the 31 cases at this time last year.
“There have been 145 cases of blastomycosis in animals in the state this year, up 35 percent from the 95 cases reported at this time last year,” he said. “In Hubbard County last year, we show one human case and eight cases in dogs. This year, so far one human case and six cases in dogs have already been reported.”
Ireland said there is no soil test for blastomycosis. “A professor at the U of M is working on developing one, but it is a slow process,” she said. “The fungus does not grow well in the lab so testing is very difficult. The CDC is not able to do testing at this point either.”
Donahue is concerned about his sons getting the fungus, as well as his new yellow Lab, Duke, and his son’s dog.
“My boys are set on staying here,” he said. “They like canoeing and being on the water. We all are kind of worried because both me and the dog had it, it’s kind of scary.”
Ireland said, “Other people, such as his sons, could potentially come into contact with the fungus. But many people who are exposed do not get sick. However, if they develop pneumonia or another infection that doesn’t respond to antibiotics, they should absolutely tell their doctor about their dad’s illness and the dog’s illness.”
Donahue said he is sharing his story in hopes it will raise awareness of the disease in this area. “I have a lot of friends who grew up here,” he said. “I went to high school here. The more people that know about these symptoms, I’d tell them don’t be stubborn like I was. I waited longer than I should have. It’s pneumonia-like symptoms and they should take it more seriously if they have that severe of a cough. It may appear to be pneumonia, but doctors should test for blastomycosis as well because it is more common here and on the increase. They’re doing lab work anyway, so what’s the harm in checking for blastomycosis, too?”
Donahue said if antifungal treatment starts sooner, the outcome may be better for patients.
“The medicine I’m on seems to be working, but I’m still weak, my body hurts constantly and my back is killing me,” he said. “My doctor’s response was that I was sick for a very long time and it’s going to take a very long time to heal. I can’t even lift a 50-pound bag of dog food and carry it from the truck; my kids do that for me. I’m so so weak. Going from being active and somewhat strong to being frail and almost helpless really sucks.”