PORTLAND, Ore. -- One look at Paul Gaylord's hands shows why the plague is referred to as "Black Death."
The welder's once-strong hands have been withered by the cell-killing infection and darkened to the color of charcoal. Doctors are waiting to see if they can save a portion of his fingers, but the outlook is grim for the man who needs them for his livelihood.
"I don't think I can do my job," Gaylord said in a phone interview from a Bend, Ore., hospital. "I'm going to lose all my fingers on both hands. I don't know about my thumbs. The toes – I might lose all them, too."
Gaylord, who turns 60 next month, contracted a rare case of the plague trying to take a mouse from the jaws of a choking cat at his home in Prineville, in rural Oregon.
He faces a difficult recovery now that he's out of intensive care. His family is trying to raise money to get him into a new house, because the manufactured home he was living in has a leaky roof, a moldy bathroom and mice – dangerous living conditions for a man with a weakened immune system.
"We didn't even know the plague was around anymore," said his sister, Diana Gaylord. "We thought that was an ancient, ancient disease."
The bacterium that causes the plague is carried by fleas, which can infect people and animals. The disease that killed millions in the Middle Ages is extremely rare in current times – an average of seven cases occur in the U.S. each year.
Gaylord's illness began after he saw a stray cat – who he'd named Charlie – with a dead mouse jammed in the back of his throat. The cat appeared to be choking, so Gaylord and a friend attempted to dislodge the mouse.
The distressed cat bit his hand. Unable to remove the mouse, Gaylord shot Charlie to end his suffering and buried him in the yard.
Two days later, he awoke with a fever and chills.
An Army veteran who rarely visits a doctor, Gaylord felt sick enough to go to the Veterans Administration outpatient clinic in nearby Bend. But the clinic had so many patients that doctors couldn't see him for more than a week.
The next day, Gaylord, who doesn't have private health insurance, went to an urgent care clinic. The doctor diagnosed cat scratch fever, provided him with medicine and told him to return if his condition worsened.
He was back a few days later. Diana Gaylord said her brother dripped with sweat and his lymph nodes swelled.
"He had a lump under his arm swollen almost as big as a lemon," she said.
A doctor at the urgent care clinic sent him in an ambulance to St. Charles Medical Center in Redmond. There, a doctor diagnosed the plague, and Gaylord was taken to a larger hospital in Bend.
Gaylord spent nearly a month on life support and only recently left the intensive care unit. At one point, doctors thought he was going to die, said Debbie Gaylord, his wife.
A hospital chaplain baptized the unconscious patient and Gaylord's son, Jake, arrived from Austin, Texas, to say goodbye.
Hours later, doctors told his family that he had improved.
"Jake got here and all of sudden the next morning he started getting better," said Andrea Gibb, Gaylord's niece. "The doctors were like kids in a candy store. They were so excited."
Gaylord's case is Oregon's fifth since 1995. None has been fatal.
The cat's body was dug up, and tests confirmed it had the plague. Other cats and dogs in the area were tested and none had the disease, said Karen Yeargain of the Crook County Health Department.
Several of Gaylord's relatives were given preventive antibiotics and will have blood drawn for further tests.
Gaylord is slowly getting better. He is now able to take strolls through the hospital with the aid of a walker, and the family hopes he can return home by October.
The family intends to build a small house on the spot where the manufactured home now stands, using donations.
Debbie Gaylord said she and her husband have never been churchgoing types, but that might change when he comes home.
"We do our praying the way we do it. But now, I don't know. We might have to rethink the church," she said.