RALEIGH, N.C. — William Edward Small was an avid outdoorsman who loved to hunt, trap and fish. When the 20-year-old airman died while undergoing training in the Panhandle, his death was shocking enough.
His North Carolina family and ex-girlfriend were first told he died of fish poisoning. Later, some were told it was a stomach virus. Now, a year and a half later, his relatives have been told he died of rabies and the people who received his donated organs might have been infected. One man in Maryland died after receiving a kidney in 2011.
"I was very suspicious over that," said Alecia Mercer, the mother of Small's 3-year-old son, about the first cause of death that military officials told her. "I just couldn't believe that."
Mercer's mother, Anna Mercer, said she was also suspicious. "I accepted it because that was on his death certificate," she said. "But something just didn't set right with me."
Small went through basic training in Texas before going to Florida to train as an aviation mechanic. He visited a clinic at the Pensacola Naval Air Station in August 2011 for abdominal pain and vomiting and was transferred four days later to a civilian hospital where he died, a Defense Department spokeswoman said last week.
The organs were offered for transplant by LifeQuest Organ Recovery Services of Gainesville, said Kathy Giery, the group's director of donor program development. Giery said the donor wasn't tested for rabies because his symptoms didn't raise a red flag for infection. "There was no testing done for rabies at any point in the process because nobody suspected rabies," she said.
When a man who had received one of Small's kidneys in 2011 died last week of rabies, that led to further testing of Small and it was discovered that he had the rabies infection. How he got it isn't known.
His heart, liver and another kidney went to recipients in Florida, Georgia and Illinois; those recipients started getting the rabies vaccine this month, and none has rabies symptoms.
William Small, father of the dead man, said Monday that he was sorry one person died from his son's organs, but he took comfort knowing that others were still alive. "The bad part for me is knowing that someone actually died because of it — thinking that he thought he was doing everything right," said the elder Small, who left the Air Force in 1976. "But … there are three people still alive because of him."