Special Report: Mystery Health Issues After the Joplin Tornado - KOAM TV 7

Special Report: Mystery Health Issues After the Joplin Tornado

Leesa Robinson Leesa Robinson
Jackie McGuirk Jackie McGuirk
Delbert McGuirk Delbert McGuirk

Part One

In the next few days, people will be reflecting on how they have healed since the Joplin tornado.  For some people, though, it has been hard.  They have been searching for a diagnosis to their mystery illness.

In part one of our special report, we meet one woman who now woks at a health awareness clinic, sharing her belief of how non-traditional medicine can sometimes be the only answer.

Leesa Robinson lived about 12 miles away from Joplin's tornado-affected area.

"I'm aware that our environment does have an affect on us.  But yet to the extent of what I experienced, was definitely a surprise to me," says Robinson.

Robinson says simply put, what she experienced a few days after the tornado was weird and incredibly scary.

"I had so much pain that I couldn't stand to be touched," says Robinson.

It was hard for her to move.

"My joints got sore," says Robinson.  "It started with my wrists, and then it began to just travel upwards, basically, and then to my legs.  So it hit every joint that I'm aware of in my body."

Robinson was bed-ridden, and says she became allergic to what her clothes were made of or how they were washed.  She says eating almost any type of food made her condition worse.  Robinson says she was ill for months, and lost 30 pounds in two weeks.

"What I finally discovered that I could eat was, I had a special brew of pinto beans and okra.  I had enough strength, I would get that in a pot and get it brewing in the mornings, and just go get me a ladle of that and sit down and have a little morsel of food.  I didn't seem to react to that," says Robinson.

Robinson says one doctor thought she needed her gallbladder removed, but she disagreed.  She had been ill before, but not to this extreme.

"I did have one other major event in my life that was 20 some years ago, and that was all stress related.  But again, it wasn't to this magnitude," says Robinson.

Robinson knows part of what she went through was caused by stress.

"If you're under stress, then basically you produce too many stress hormones, mainly steroids, and they are immunosuppressive and they can create some vicious cycle," says Dr. Uwe Schmidt, an infectious disease specialist at Freeman Health System.

Stress can suppress the immune system.

Robinson also believes the tornado kicked-up dangerous chemicals from buildings that were destroyed.

"Things that I had in my environment, I would have to monitor, because it would accelerate.  That would accelerate those symptoms," says Robinson.

"It's not in the air anymore, but at that time, of course, a lot of things were flying around.  There was a lot of, not just pieces of wood and stones, but a lot of dirt was stirred up and people definitely inhaled a lot of things.  We don't know what was in there," says Dr. Schmidt.

But some doctors say it's unusual for tornado-related respiratory issues to be around five years later.

"I would expect most of that to happen initially," says Dr. Pritish Tosh, an infectious disease specialist at the Mayo Clinic, Rochester.

"It's difficult to prove, one way or the other," says Dr. Schmidt.

Doctors say tests on the immune system can show deficiencies, but don't always pinpoint causes.

"I basically did a lot on my own.  I became my doctor," says Robinson.

Robinson took one step at a time, at first only dragging her leg while she tried to walk.

"I would drag and tap.  That's how I could walk," says Robinson.

She worked her way up to eating more foods, but still has a strict diet.

"What we call clean eating.  Organic foods.  So I've stayed away from sugars, flour, anything processed.  It was rebuilding, like the homes that were destroyed in the tornado.  We have to get rid of the debris, we have to move the debris out.  Then we have to rebuild," says Robinson.

Robinson says her "blueprint to recovery" has worked perfectly so far.

Robinson says her faith also helped her through the process of trying to find a diagnosis.

Part Two

The infectious disease specialist at Freeman Health System says there were 13 cases of fungal infectious because of the tornado, and three of those cases were fatal.

The family you are about to meet says they survived the tornado with only minor scratches.  So it's been a mystery how an infection could have turned deadly.

161 people died because of the Joplin tornado.  According to Delbert McGuirk's widow, he too, lost his life to the tornado.

"Delbert was one of them," says Jackie McGuirk.

But Delbert isn't on the official list.  Jackie says the tornado causes a mystery illness that took Delbert's life in July of last year.  He was 46-years-old.

"I had never seen anything like that.  I've never seen anything like what he went through," says Jackie.

Delbert's condition was so rare it prompted KOAM to do a story.  

"I try to find answers to see what's going on, so I don't have to go through the painful flare-ups and possibilities of having something else amputated," said Delbert in our 2014 interview.

"It started with a burning deep down in his tissue.  Then, where it was doing that, it would turn blood red.  Then, it would blister and fill-up with fluid.  That would take all of maybe 30 minutes to go through all of that," says Jackie.

Eventually, his leg and some fingers were amputated.  But the mystery illness kept spreading.  Doctors were at a loss.  Delbert had diabetes, but doctors said that didn't have anything to do with his illness.  He didn't have a fungal infection, like some other tornado survivors.

"There was in infection component.  I think that still is part of it, but I think the underlying problems he's had have become autoimmune in nature," says Dr. James Boyle during our 2014 interview.

Delbert was hopeful an underlying cause would someday be determined.

"Until then, I guess it's going to be a headache," said Delbert during our 2014 interview.

That day never came.  There haven't been any answers since Delbert's death, either.

"I'm not saying someone, somewhere...  But I just don't know where.  And it's too late, now, for Delbert," says Jackie.

The front yard of the McGuirk's home was in the tornado's path.  There's a birdhouse Delbert built, and some flowers.  It gets windy in Joplin's disaster recovery area.

"Those types of plant life capture a lot of the pathogens and what not," says Shandie Johnson, Delbert's daughter.

Shandie says since the tornado, she has dealt with chronic sinus infections and bronchitis.  Local doctors are familiar with the symptoms.

"Some people have had complaints since then, like respiratory symptoms, breathing problems, frequent pulmonary infections," says Dr. Uwe Schmidt, an infections disease specialist at Freeman Health System.

Diagnosing the cause of some of these symptoms can be a mystery.

"We don't have a good explanation for that, really," says Dr. Schmidt.

Delbert's ashes are in the McGuirk's storm shelter.  

"So if something does happen, the tornado won't take him away.  He would be OK," says Jackie.

In the midst of caring for their own health issues, there's one, big question always in the minds of Jackie and Shandie.

Shandie reflects, "I still wonder if that tornado hadn't come through, would my dad still be here?"

The two are still trying to cope with reality that they may never know.

Doctors say the only large-scale study done in Joplin related to health after the tornado dealt with fungal infections.


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