Woman's brush with Legionnaire's Disease

Phillis Lois has an idea. A simple, cheap and easy one.

And it might just save other greenfingers going through the scary ordeal that took this Waihi Beach woman to the brink. And slowly and painfully back.

“The doctor in hospital asked me if I had family nearby. I said: ‘Whoa! This sounds serious’.” She took it to mean she was at death’s door. The doctor then advised her to call her family. “You are a very sick woman,” he said.

“I had it,” says Phillis. It being Legionnaires’ disease – a particularly nasty, potentially fatal form of pneumonia or lung inflammation.

“When my son arrived I was all teary. I said: ‘Is this it? Am I going to die?’” Phillis says she wasn’t afraid of dying, but rather, as a gardener, she had unfinished business. “It was especially unpleasant, I don’t want to go through it again, and I don’t want anyone else to either.”

Phillis was at her workplace when she made what she considered to be an informed assessment. “It was inside, but it was a foyer with a very high ceiling and near a doorway, so there was ventilation.” She was re-potting a plant and she wasn’t expecting a near death experience because of it. But the airborne micro-organisms or bacteria from the potting mix were up to their evil.

First Phillis felt unwell, cancelled a couple of engagements. Then she experienced what she graphically describes as “waterfalls of chills down my legs, starting at the top and floating down”.  

Then the high temperatures and extreme chills set in. “I got into winter pyjamas, a singlet and hot water bottle.” This at the height of summer. “Then later I’m chucking things off.”

Between two and 10 days after exposure other signs and symptoms manifest. Coughing up mucus and blood, shortness of breath, chest pains. One of Phillis’ lungs was full of pus and draining into the other. There can also be gastro-intestinal upsets like nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. And Phillis endured the full gamut.

The next few days were a blur for Phillis – confusion and other mental changes are part of the deal. And all because she had re-potted a plant – something this avid gardener has done a thousand times.

“I knew about Legionnaire’s disease, but I didn’t understand it. I knew there was a hazard, but I didn’t realise how much of a hazard.” Phillis understands a lot more now of course. And she got to thinking. She wanted to tell people her story so people would be more aware.

“I knew about the need for ventilation but I didn’t know about masks and gloves.” So she did some homegrown research. She tested the knowledge of other gardeners.

“Some were aware of the need for masks and gloves. But most, the large majority, didn’t. “They said: ‘No! – we just go ahead and do it’.” Potting or re-potting plants seems such a simple non-threatening activity people generally ignore the dangers. Or they’re unaware they could be inhaling the bacteria through contaminated vapour, mist or dust.

Phillis says people are so blasé. So here’s Phillis’ simple and cheap idea to save people from themselves and the micro-organisms.

“Why don’t the manufacturers put a disposable protective mask inside each bag at either end so when it’s ripped open the masks will be there? People are more likely to use masks then. Or perhaps attach the mask to the outside of the bag.

“Throw in some gloves as well. The cost would be minimal, and the benefits huge.”

Phillis says there were warnings posted on the wall at the store where she bought the potting mix. “But it was a small sign and I was more interested in the bigger sign, which told me all about the specials and good deals.” The bags themselves also carry warnings – some small, some big.

The bag The Weekend Sun examined had a bold red warning across the top: “Read the health warning below.” The warning, which covered one-third of one side of the bag, advised the potting mix could contain micro-organisms “which on rare occasions could cause illness especially for older people and those with reduced immunity.”

And there’s the rub. “Because Tauranga and the Bay of Plenty has an older demographic, which loves its gardening, we apparently have a higher rate of Legionnaire’s disease.”

And after her experience Phillis wants people to understand Legionnaires’ disease, it’s consequences and how close to death we can be by simply repotting a plant. “And as gardeners, we will be using these products regardless of the hazard,” says Phillis. “So manufactures could reduce the risk, help us do things safely.”

Reflecting on her illness, Phillis says it was the recovery time that got to her. “It took six weeks for me to feel something like normal again. But I’m feeling very well now, thank you.” She would feel even better if she found a mask and gloves in her next bag of potting mix.

And some trivia – Legionnaire’s disease got its name after the first recognised cases occurred at an American Legion convention in 1976. More than 2000 people attended the convention, 182 contracted the disease and 29 of them died.