Lagunitas couple survived dreaded rat lungworm

02/08/2018

Two Lagunitas residents have drawn national attention in recent months after contracting a rare parasite known as rat lungworm while they eloped on Maui early last year. Sixty-five-year-old Ben Manilla, who teaches in the University of California, Berkeley’s school of journalism and has produced and directed award-winning radio programs, spent the majority of 2017 in a hospital after an infectious disease specialist managed to diagnose him and his new wife, Eliza Lape, a communications consultant. Cases of rat lungworm, more common in southeast Asia and the Pacific basin, have been on the rise in Hawaii, with 18 confirmed cases last year (six of those were on Maui, though there had only been two historically). The offender parasite, a nematode called Angiostrongylus cantonensis, infects rodents that, in turn, pass the larvae to animals that eat their feces, like snail and slugs. Mr. Manilla and Ms. Lape assumed they were exposed by eating fresh vegetables from a garden where they vacationed. The parasite largely affects the brain and spinal cord and can cause a rare type of meningitis, though a wide spectrum of effects are reported. Ms. Lape had flu-like symptoms and recovered, but the experience was different for her husband. “The pain started in my shoulder at first, but quickly started moving around my body,” he said. “For instance, I would wake up and the pain would be in my calf. And then, while teaching at the j-school, I couldn’t hold the marker to write on the board, the trembling in my hands was so severe.” After his diagnosis was confirmed with a spinal tap, Mr. Manilla says he got a blood clot, which caused a string of complications and two bouts of pneumonia. During eight months in the hospital, including two in intensive care, he suffered from a delirium that involved imagined trips to Africa and Canada and scenarios involving attacks on his life. “After I came out of the delirium, I was worried I had lost my mind,” he said. Though his hands still shake and his memory falters at times, he has now largely recovered. Hawaii has dedicated $1 million to the health department to control the spread of rat lungworm, a fact Mr. Manilla attributes to viral news media in response to their case. After learning that many people infected with the disease commit suicide due to the extreme impact on their bodies, he said he wanted to speak out about the experience to help with prevention. Last week, he reflected: “Since re-entering the world, it’s so much clearer to me what’s important and what’s superfluous. I’m learning to say no to things and really reconsidering the use of my time. I attribute so much of my getting stronger and healthier to where we live: the air is fresh, the silence is wonderful, the farmstand on Sir Francis Drake gives me access to local veggies and meats. It’s this place that’s helping me to get healthier.”