Two Oahu men diagnosed last month with a rare and lethal type of leptospirosis were hospitalized after their organs began shutting down.
Dr. Scott Miscovich, a family medicine physician in Kaneohe, said he was alarmed after treating both men for Weil’s disease, a severe type of the bacterial infection that can cause organ failure and death.
Both men had small cuts on their feet and walked through muddy waters in Kahaluu then started feeling flu-like symptoms — body aches, diarrhea, fever and fatigue — about a week later.
Kahaluu resident William Ching, 44, ended up hospitalized for a week after walking in slippers on a friend’s farm while taking care of the chickens and horses.
Ching helps on the farm daily and possibly contracted the disease through a small open wound after stubbing his toe. After three to four days of severe symptoms, he called a friend to take him to the hospital. It took doctors a couple days to diagnose the rare case of leptospirosis, he said.
“They said if I never come to the hospital in one, two days later I would’ve been dead in my house,” Ching said. “I never know. I just thought I had one bad case of the flu. I never felt that way before. I was scared knowing that I had something bad.”
“His entire body was yellow — every ounce of his body was swollen from the failure of his kidneys and liver,” Miscovich added.
The second patient, Norman Taira, was hospitalized for a month after working in a taro patch for his employer and ended up on emergency dialysis and “nearly died from liver and kidney failure.”
The 59-year-old Heeia resident said he had a cut on his foot in late December when he went into the loi and doesn’t remember going into the hospital because he was put into an induced coma when his kidneys and liver started failing. Emergency room doctors initially did not diagnose the disease and sent him home at least once with nausea medication, he said.
“I heard I died twice and they brought me back,” said Taira, whose left leg and fingers are still numb following the ordeal. “They said I flatlined. I just remember getting tubes down my throat and kind of spacing out. I feel lucky I’m still here. I’m just trying to get healthy so I can go back to what I enjoy doing and try to enjoy life a little bit better. This is out of the blue. It makes you appreciate life better.”
Miscovich said the disease “immediately and very rapidly begins to shut down the liver and kidneys.”
“After the kidney and liver, it started to break down the lung tissues,” he said of Taira’s case. “He was bleeding from his lungs and almost drowned in his blood.”
The doctor, who has been practicing medicine for 30 years and is the owner of Windward Urgent Care, alerted the state Health Department after laboratory tests came back positive for Weil’s disease. After a series of antibiotics, both men were discharged from the hospital, but are still recovering.
“That’s one of the big problems: we want to alert the state and both the doctors and the patients that if you look at the symptoms it can act like the flu. A lot of people will basically sit home and try to let it run its course,” he said, adding that physicians also may be unaware as to the exposure a patient had to waterfalls, streams and ponds or other standing water and mud that house the bacteria.
The aggressive form of leptospirosis is fatal in 10 percent of cases, Miscovich said, adding that there are only 200 cases diagnosed in the United States each year, half of them in Hawaii.
“You can’t even find reports of it,” he said. “The thing about it is early treatment with very straightforward simple antibiotics even taken orally will effectively treat and stop leptospirosis in its early stages.”
He warns the public not to ingest or expose the mucous membranes around the mouth and nose to potentially contaminated waters.
State Health Department officials could not be reached for an immediate comment.