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St. Petersburg woman solves mystery of dad's 1958 death

ST. PETERSBURG — Debbie Rashkin's father never got sick. He seemed indestructible to her.

David Wagner survived Pacific combat in World War II. As a 6-footer, he was a solid man who awoke before dawn, worked six days a week in his candy store and never missed a day.

But in early 1958, Wagner came down with what seemed to be the flu. Soon, he was too weak to climb out of bed. A few days later, he died at age 36.

The cause of death was listed as chronic hepatitis. But that didn't make sense to the family. How could a man in seemingly perfect health die so suddenly?

Rashkin, now 62 and living in St. Petersburg, had long figured she would never know exactly why he died. Early last year, her elderly mother entered an assisted-living facility. As Rashkin cleaned her apartment, she found long forgotten papers.

They would lead Rashkin to stories of Japanese spies and events little known beyond academic texts. Rashkin said she found proof that the war killed her dad as certainly as any bullet.

The government disagreed. But on Friday, Rashkin got an unexpected call that changed everything.

• • •

In 1939, a technician at the Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research in New York City sat in his car with a stranger.

The stranger said he needed a culture of a virulent strain of the yellow fever virus used by Rockefeller researchers. The technician refused. The stranger offered $1,000, then $3,000.

The technician wouldn't budge. The stranger quickly drove away in a Buick sedan, stealing the technician's car keys so he couldn't follow. His identify would never be known.

Other efforts were made to get the virus. The government soon suspected the Japanese.

Yellow fever is a virus spread by mosquitoes. It's prevalent in South America and sub-tropical Africa, not Asia.

But after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. military decided to give every U.S. service member a yellow fever vaccination in case the Japanese waged biological warfare.

To make the vaccine, blood donors were needed. On Jan. 27, 1942, a physician gave blood in Baltimore. In records, he is identified only as J.F.

J.F. had twice experienced jaundice before he gave blood. Hepatitis wasn't well understood then. Jaundice, marked by a yellowing of the skin, was often the term used to describe what was actually hepatitis, a deadly inflammation of the liver.

On Feb. 20, 1942, Wagner received his inoculation.

About 50,000 soldiers were soon hospitalized with jaundice. Some died. Another 280,000 soldiers contracted the infection but were not sick enough to be hospitalized. The inoculations were halted.

Some men, including Wagner, were completely asymptomatic and were discharged never knowing they had been infected.

The inoculation proved unnecessary. By the war's end, it was clear the Japanese had no program to use the yellow fever virus as a biological weapon.

• • •

In January 2010, Evelyn Wagner was 83 and in ill health. Rashkin decided to help her mother apply for Department of Veterans Affairs widow benefits. Could she prove her dad's death was service connected?

Rashkin started researching the war.

She soon discovered the 1942 jaundice outbreak. Rashkin knew her father's death certificate listed hepatitis. Was it linked to a yellow fever inoculation?

About this time, Rashkin's mother moved into an assisted-living facility. Rashkin cleaned out her mother's apartment and found her dad's old military records.

A document detailing her father's Army discharge said he hadn't received a yellow fever vaccination. So maybe that was a dead end, Rashkin thought.

One night, she leafed through the papers. She stopped when she saw a document labeled "Immunization Register." She was flabbergasted. It showed her father had, in fact, received the yellow fever vaccine.

Incredibly, it even showed the exact vaccine lot used to immunize him — No. 365.

Rashkin, using the Internet, found Dr. Martin Furmanski, a retired California physician who had done extensive research into the 1942 jaundice outbreak. He looked up lot 365 for her.

It was a contaminated lot made using J.F.'s blood.

But the VA denied the claim for widow benefits. It said medical records for Rashkin's father showed no illness within a year of his Army discharge.

The agency also said Wagner's death certificate showed he did not die of hepatitis B. Instead, the VA said he died of "chronic interstitial hepatitis," an obsolete term for cirrhosis of the liver, the VA said.

Rashkin helped her mother file an appeal, sending the VA a letter from Furmanski.

He told the VA it was wrong on the cirrhosis. The death certificate's wording was consistent with hepatitis B, Furmanski said.

As a medical term, "hepatitis B" didn't exist in 1958. The VA's reasoning, the doctor said, was like "going back to the 1950s and asking Eisenhower to talk about an iPhone."

And Furmanski noted hepatitis B could be insidious, causing no symptoms for years.

Rashkin wasn't sure if Furmanski would convince the VA. She got an answer on Friday.

After the St. Petersburg Times called the VA about the case, it called Rashkin to say it was approving her mother's claim.

Her mother will be paid $28,851 in retroactive benefits and $1,491 per month.

"This was a great way for us to start our Christmas holiday to call Mrs. Wagner and inform her of this," said VA spokeswoman Collette Burgess. "It's always gratifying to grant benefits to people who have earned them."

Rashkin, a retired airline gate agent, said the money will ensure her mother can stay at a high-quality assisted-living facility.

She is thankful to the VA but still sorry to have lived most of her life not knowing her father died in the service of his country.

"I think anyone would want to know how a parent died," she said. "To wait 53 years for an answer? I become very angry and emotional. It's like my father's died all over again."

Contact William R. Levesque at levesque@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3432.

St. Petersburg woman solves mystery of dad's 1958 death 12/24/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 27, 2011 4:19pm]
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