St. Petersburg man survives infection by rare strain of anthrax

At the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, Dan and Anne Anders talk about his anthrax infection. See their video interview at links.tampabay.com.

Minneapolis Star Tribune

At the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, Dan and Anne Anders talk about his anthrax infection. See their video interview at links.tampabay.com.

Anne Anders calls her husband, Dan, the "Miracle Man." But really she means miracles, plural.

There was the time the former Air Force gunner was pinned to the ceiling of an AC-130 gunship as it plunged 2,000 feet before the pilot regained control, one of many close calls in the skies over Vietnam. More recently he survived a head-on collision that caused a stroke. His recovery took five years.

But this might be Dan Anders' most miraculous feat of all: The 61-year-old St. Petersburg man survived an incredibly rare and lethal strain of anthrax.

He wasn't the victim of a terror attack, like the one that killed five in 2001. Instead, he inhaled spores of a naturally occurring strain of anthrax during his summer vacation out west. Since 1976, only two cases of naturally occurring inhalation anthrax have been seen in the United States.

"They said I had a less than 5 percent chance of making it," Dan Anders said Tuesday, his voice hoarse and weak after 24 days in the hospital. "But I did."

His wife said there also was something divine in the way doctors and medical experts came together in Minnesota to save her husband's life.

"It's just like one miracle after another," Anne Anders said.

• • •

The Anderses left for North Dakota on July 13 to start their summer tour of national parks: Yellowstone, Glacier, Mount Rushmore, Wind Cave, etc.

By the time they got to a friend's summer place in Pelican Rapids, Minn., on Aug. 2, Dan Anders said he already was feeling run down and tired.

The next day, a friend took him to Lake Region Healthcare in nearby Fergus Falls.

It looked like pneumonia. He was admitted and given antibiotics. But Dr. Joe Meyer also ordered extensive blood cultures, according to the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, which first reported the story Monday.

The next day, the hospital noticed a type of bacteria they weren't used to seeing.

Soon, the state Health Department was called in. And then the FBI. Test results confirmed Dan Anders had Bacillus anthracis — the anthrax bacteria.

• • •

Doctors moved quickly Aug. 5 to get him to Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis for emergency treatment.

Dan Anders was delirious at this point. They asked if he wanted to fly or take an ambulance. He doesn't remember choosing the flight.

By the time his wife made the long drive to Minneapolis later that day, he was in a medically induced coma. He spent 11 days on life support.

"The reason the bacteria is such a problem is the toxins the bacteria produces," said Dr. Mark Sprenkle, a specialist who treated Anders in Minneapolis. "The toxins can lead to many sorts of problems and people can go on to develop multisystem organ failure."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rushed in a specialized treatment — anthrax immunoglobulin — derived from the serum of people vaccinated against anthrax. Two CDC epidemiologists flew in to study the case and the disease.

• • •

The couple's daughter, Malita Anders, flew from Orlando to be with her parents. She wanted just one thing: that her father sing happy birthday for her.

Slowly, he was brought out of his coma. Aug. 17, after they had removed the ventilator tube from his throat, he sang for his daughter on her 31st birthday.

"That was the best birthday present she or anybody could ever have," Anne Anders said.

A dozen doctors worked on him for days afterward. Investigators retraced the couple's steps through five states and issued a nationwide alert for anthrax. Investigators clad in special gear searched their belongings.

Experts believe that Dan Anders most likely contracted anthrax during his travels. Symptoms usually appear within a week of exposure.

According to the CDC, people can be infected by contact with contaminated animal products, or by eating undercooked meat from infected animals. But that's rare.

Rarer still is the infection Dan Anders had: inhalation anthrax.

"They say it can lay in the ground for 60 years and then pop back up," he said.

• • •

Dan Anders, a retiree who ran his own irrigation business, was released from the hospital on Monday. But he's not able to return to St. Petersburg yet.

He needs a cane to get around. He'll be on antibiotics for another 60 days. He has another long recovery ahead of him.

The Anderses appreciate everyone who helped save his life. But Anne Anders, 63, knows how close she came to losing her husband of 36 years.

What if they hadn't mailed the blood samples out on the very last run Friday? What if they had picked the ambulance and gotten stuck in traffic? What if the rare affliction had gone undiagnosed in Fergus Falls?

"I can't make any sense of it. Nor can any of the doctors."

Dan Anders wishes that for once he could experience a different kind of miracle in his life:

"I wish it would have been the lottery instead of the disease."

St. Petersburg man survives infection by rare strain of anthrax 08/30/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 31, 2011 12:32am]

© 2014 Tampa Bay Times

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...