After Joplin twister, a mystery illness

Associated Press Modified: October 5, 2012 at 9:32 am •  Published: October 5, 2012
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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."

AP MISSOURI PANORAMA