Bend plague victim back to work, sans digits

PRINEVILLE — Prior to amputation, Paul Gaylord's fingers and toes turned black as the flesh died. His wife, Debbie, said it didn't smell very good.

"The doctor told me, 'Don't be alarmed if you wake up one day and find a finger or a toe in your bed,' " she said.

Gaylord, 61, the Prineville resident who in June 2012 contracted bubonic plague, is back to welding, carving and otherwise living life, in spite of the fact that he's missing all eight fingers, the top half of both thumbs and all 10 toes.

"When I still had my fingers and I would tap them together it sounded like hard plastic," Gaylord said. "Some people who would see me would shy away, thinking they'd get the plague."

There have been 999 confirmed or probable plague cases in the U.S. between 1990 and 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those, 80 percent were bubonic plague, which has an 11 percent mortality rate. The other types of plague, septicemic and pneumonic, carry higher mortality rates. Debbie Gaylord said her husband cycled through all three types, according to doctors.

Paul Gaylord's odyssey began the day Charlie, the Gaylords' cat, came home, obviously ill, with a mouse lodged in the back of its throat. Gaylord was bit while trying to yank the mouse out. He cleaned the wound with several types of disinfectant and hoped for the best, but a few days later he began experiencing flu-like symptoms.

Doctors prescribed antibiotics, but they didn't help.

"They put him in intensive care and one of the doctors looked at me and said, 'I think it's bubonic plague,'" Debbie Gaylord said. "I thought I was going to lose him."

While in the hospital, Gaylord's lung collapsed, his heart stopped, he had to be put on a dialysis machine and doctors didn't think he had much chance at recovery.

After 27 days in a coma, he awoke the day before staff at St. Charles Bend was scheduled to turn off his life support machines.

"A doctor and a nurse came in and closed the door behind them and told me I needed to make a decision. I said I already had and they decided they'd do it tomorrow," Debbie Gaylord said. "He must have heard and said, 'Oh, hell no. You're not getting rid of me that easy.' "

The Gaylords have a sense of humor about the whole thing, and Debbie Gaylord said he's always had a positive outlook about it.

"You've got to play the hand you're dealt," Gaylord said.

He left the hospital just before his 60th birthday and was able to celebrate at home with his friends and family. Since then, he's had another birthday and said life is more or less back to normal.

"I say I'm actually a 1-year-old because I got a second chance at life," he said. "I can do almost anything I could do before."

Gaylord welded a brush guard for his pickup and he repaired the brakes on his wife's car. For his next project, he is planning to refurbish a 1952 GMC.

"Toes are overrated," he said. "And I can do a whole lot with just these thumbs."

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