One look at Paul Gaylord’s hands shows why the plague is referred to as “Black Death.”
The welder’s once-strong hands have been withered by the cell-killing infection and darkened to the color of charcoal. Doctors are waiting to see if they can save a portion of his fingers, but the outlook is grim for the man who needs them for his livelihood.
“I don’t think I can do my job,” Gaylord said in a phone interview from a Bend, Ore., hospital. “I’m going to lose all my fingers on both hands. I don’t know about my thumbs. The toes — I might lose all them, too.”
Gaylord, who turns 60 next month, contracted a rare case of the plague trying to take a mouse from the jaws of a choking cat at his home in Prineville, in rural Oregon.
He faces a difficult recovery now that he’s out of intensive care. His family is trying to raise money to get him into a new house, because the manufactured home he was living in has a leaky roof, a moldy bathroom and mice — dangerous living conditions for a man with a weakened immune system.
“We didn’t even know the plague was around anymore,” said his sister, Diana Gaylord. “We thought that was an ancient, ancient disease.”
The bacterium that causes the plague is carried by fleas, which can infect people and animals. The disease that killed millions in the Middle Ages is extremely rare in current times — an average of seven cases occur in the U.S. each year.
Gaylord’s illness began after he saw a stray cat — who he’d named Charlie — with a dead mouse jammed in the back of his throat. The cat appeared to be choking, so Gaylord and a friend attempted to dislodge the mouse.