W. Oregon man fights flesh-eating parasite
Adam Spencer of Springfield was bitten by a sand flea while visiting South America early this year. He contracted leishmaniasis braziliensis because of the bite, and after several months of diagnosis, underwent experimental treatment. His story is being filmed for an episode of “Monsters Inside Me” for the Animal Planet channel.
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Springfield — “What happened to your face?”
How many times has Adam Spencer heard that question since returning from South America on March 21?
Too many to remember.
That’s what happens when a flesh-eating parasite is burrowing through your right cheek for months.
Spencer, a 2006 Thurston High School graduate and 2010 University of Oregon graduate, spent five months hopscotching across South America last fall and winter with his fiancee, Shalynn Pack. But he spent most of Tuesday in Lane County being filmed by a New York City production crew working on an episode of “Monsters Inside Me” for the cable channel Animal Planet that will air early next year.
Spencer, 23, now knows that it was a bite from a sand fly along a riverbank in Peru in early January that led to his contracting leishmaniasis braziliensis, an infection caused by parasites living under the skin and spreading to the rest of the body.
But it took three months to figure that out.
Working for nonprofit
After spending time in Ecuador in October, Spencer and Pack headed for Peru. A journalism major at the UO interested in documentary filmmaking, Spencer was there shooting videos and taking photographs for Peru Verde, a nonprofit ecotourism development company that builds rainforest lodges. Pack, an Oregon State University graduate who majored in zoology, was studying macaw parrots.
They climbed to the top of Machu Picchu, the 15th century Inca site, where Spencer proposed to Pack.
Spencer was photographing butterflies along a riverbank on Jan. 8 when he sensed what felt like lots of mosquitoes biting him. But the butterflies were so colorful he just focused on his work.
In February, the couple took a weekend trip to the Salt Flats of Uyuni in Bolivia. “And I noticed there was this little pimple-like thing on my face,” Spencer recalled Tuesday, sitting in the Thurston Medical Clinic, where he went for treatment in late March after returning to the United States.
“And through the next month or so it slowly grew,” he said.
Little itching or pain
He went to a pharmacy in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and got some anti-bacterial cream. After application, it made the growing wound on his cheek ooze. Was it healing?
But it didn’t hurt or itch much, either.
In early March, Spencer and Pack were now in Oruro, Bolivia, doing volunteer work for Sustainable Bolivia. They went to Carnaval de Oruro, an annual event that attracts tens of thousands. They partied with other volunteers until the wee hours of the morning.
“I woke up and the wound had just exploded,” Spencer said.
He finally went to a doctor in LaPaz, Bolivia. She mentioned that it could be leishmaniasis, which Spencer and Pack had heard about before venturing into the jungle, along with other diseases that foreigners should watch out for, like malaria. But the last time they were in the jungle was two months ago, Spencer told the doctor. So it couldn’t be that, he thought.
But leishmaniasis, he would later learn, appears weeks or months after a victim is bitten by a sand fly.
After a trip to Chile, the couple returned to the Eugene-Springfield area on March 21. About a week later, Spencer went to see Dr. Stephen Ames at the Thurston Medical Clinic, whom he’d seen over the years. Ames had never seen a case of leishmaniasis and so didn’t suspect it. A biopsy was inconclusive.
Spencer and Pack, who now live with her parents in Veneta, then moved briefly to Corvallis, where she was studying butterflies. Spencer saw a dermatologist there, Dr. Adriana Bruné, who is from Argentina. Being South American and hearing about Spencer’s travels, she suspected leishmaniasis. Another biopsy was positive on April 26.
Then the news came that the only drug available in the United States to treat the disease is Pentostam, yet to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Another biopsy had to be done by Dr. Sugat Patel, an infectious diseases doctor in Corvallis, and then sent to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, where a sample had to be grown to test what strain it was before the drug could be prescribed, Spencer said. That took another month, with the diagnosis of the braziliensis strain coming from the CDC.
Could clear up by the holidays
On May 25, Spencer started intravenous injections of Pentostam at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center in Corvallis. The injections would last for 21 days straight. He still goes back twice a week for a treatment with a misting spray.
Spencer, who just got hired to shoot school photographs with a company called Lifetouch, has been told the wound, which is healing slowly, might clear up by Christmastime.
Maybe he’ll even watch the monster inside of him during Season Four of the Animal Planet series, scheduled to air between January and March, with a clear face.
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