“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.”<< previous 1 2