Worries about bay spread far from Pocomoke Water may have sickened man crabbing on Chester River

September 01, 1997|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

CHESAPEAKE CITY -- When it's not the pain, it's the uncertainty that most troubles John Viars. One month after crabbing on the Chester River, he's still ailing from something that got into his system that day. He tires easily, his muscles ache, his left hand swells suddenly, and his skin breaks into splotches and lesions.

Meanwhile, he wonders if doctors -- he has seen 10 so far -- will ever figure out what's wrong.

Having watched her husband's bizarre symptoms come and go for 35 days, his wife, Eileen Viars, said last week: "Sometimes I feel like I'm watching a science fiction movie here."

Viars, 53, is the first to acknowledge that, despite some similarities, his symptoms might not be even remotely linked to Pfiesteria piscicidia. That's the microorganism that has killed fish and sickened watermen this month on the Pocomoke River in Somerset County, more than 75 aerial miles south of where Viars went crabbing on July 25.

They also point out that another man who accompanied Viars that day is just fine. Neither have there been other reports of crabbers or fishermen sickened by waters beyond the Pocomoke.

But the confluence of recent events -- the Pocomoke outbreak, the widespread reports of disfigured fish elsewhere in the Chesapeake Bay and Viars' illness -- make them worry about the possibility of unhealthful waters beyond the Pocomoke.

Their concerns reflect those of other Marylanders, whose confidence in the bay has been so shaken by recent events that, reasonably or not, some now wonder if they should go near the water until receiving further assurances.

The Viarses also are disappointed that they've been shuttled from one state agency to another during their search for answers. His case ultimately attracted the attention of a Johns Hopkins Hospital epidemiologist, but his wife said that officials from the state health and natural resources departments showed little interest when she telephoned.

All that's known for sure about Viars' ailment is that it began shortly after a crabbing trip to the Langford Bay area of the Chester River on July 25.

Viars already knew that the bay was not the pristine place it had been when he first went crabbing in 1964, as he was starting out as an assembly line worker for General Motors. (He's now a marine mechanic.)

"Then the water was so clear you could see five or six feet, maybe even 10," he said. "You couldn't ride up the Chester River without getting your prop caught in the grass. Now you can't find grass anywhere, and the water's not clear."

He also already knew that, when it comes to bay water, odd things can happen. Two years ago, some children who had been swimming in the Chester River during a "red tide" bloom of algae jumped into his backyard pool before their suits had dried. The following week, the red algae bloomed in his pool, and it took about $200 worth of chemicals to get rid of it.

On July 25, he crabbed from 4 a.m. to 1 p.m. He and a friend slowly set out two 1,200-foot "trot lines" baited with chicken necks and then pulled them out. They hauled in about a bushel for their nine hours on the water, not much to brag about, considering the five or six bushels he used to haul in years ago in far less time.

His symptoms began on the way home to his house near this town just south of Elkton. His left leg swelled up. Lesions flared on both legs and on his left hand. By midnight, he was alarmed enough to go to the emergency room at Elkton Hospital.

Since then, he has seen more doctors, including his personal physician, Dr. Robert Gray, and a physician at Baltimore's Good Samaritan Hospital, Dr. Mala Mehta, who ran tests on him for a week.

"They have run every test in the book," Eileen Viars said. "They've really put him through the paces."

The symptoms, meanwhile, have come and gone. Small lesions still appear on his left leg, and he often feels as if all he can do is sleep. Three weeks ago, Eileen Viars said, "A lesion came up on his left hand, and within a minute he couldn't move his hand."

The swelling progressed so rapidly, John Viars said, "that it was almost like somebody was shooting air underneath the skin. I told [Eileen], I think somebody must be using a voodoo doll.

"I've never had pain like that in my life," he said.

More tests are scheduled next week. In the meantime, Mehta has consulted with Dr. Trish M. Perl, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Judging from the symptoms, Perl said yesterday, she recommended that Mehta explore the possibility of infection by Erysipelothrix rhusiopathiae, an uncommon bacteria which, when it occurs, is often associated with fishermen -- transmitted at times through cuts occurring during the handling of crabs.

Viars said he did have an open sore that day, a blister on his left palm.

"If I just knew what I had, it would help," he said. "Then I could deal with it."

So could the rest of his family. Eileen's brother, for one, hasn't wanted to go near the water -- to the point of cutting short a recent waterfront vacation.

And until Eileen Viars knows more, she said, "I'll want to stay as far away from the water as possible."

Pub Date: 9/01/97

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