When Graham McCumber was able to speak again in early April, he thought he had been in the hospital for just three days.
But the 24-year-old carpenter’s apprentice and surfer had been hospitalized since just after Christmas — much of the time in a coma brought on by one of the most severe cases of rat lungworm disease ever seen in Hawai’i.
In January, doctors reviewed the damage to his brain from the rare, parasite-born disease and told his family that even if he survived he might never eat or talk again.
“They gave us three choices, none of them good,” McCumber’s mother Kay Howe said. “I said, ‘I choose a fourth alternative. I choose a miracle.’ “
She feels like she got what she prayed for.
Though weak and thin compared to his former athletic build, McCumber on Sunday was able to sit up propped by pillows and move all his limbs in his first interview since leaving Hilo Medical Center April 30.
“I’m stretching on mats on the floor and practicing walking,” McCumber said.
He’s happy to be out of the hospital.
“I used to be tube man,” he joked, reflecting on the breathing tubes, feeding tubes and tubes that removed drainage from his lungs not that long ago.
It wasn’t until mid-April that McCumber was officially declared completely out of his coma, his aunt Lyn Howe said.
Moving his arms and looking around the sunlit bedroom, McCumber said he knows his vision has been affected, as have most parts of his body (especially the left side). He still takes nerve pain medications, and is getting treatments for nerve regeneration and strength building.
He still chooses his words slowly.
His short-term goal is “maybe walking in a couple of months, without a wheelchair or anything,” he said. Now, he needs a walker and two people supporting him to take even a few steps.
Longer-term goals include surfing and playing the guitar again. And ultimately, he’d like to go to Bali and study Ayurvedic medicine.
A healer from Bali, Pak Mangku, was among many people doing nontraditional healing work on McCumber, his mother said.
“The Western doctors did a fine job of fighting the infections and other problems that arose from being in the hospital,” she said. But she said acupuncture, Chinese herbs and the long-distance energy work of Pak Mangku were crucial to her son’s recovery.
Tiny slugs ingested
McCumber’s memory of life before rat lungworm is good, though he still has no idea what particular food might have contained tiny slugs or their slime, introducing the rat lungworm (Angiostrongylus cantonensis) parasite into his body.
“I tried to think back on it, and I don’t know exactly,” McCumber said. He does remember that he had seen slugs crawling on the floor in the place he lived when he got sick.
McCumber is one of three Big Island residents diagnosed with particularly severe cases of rat lungworm disease in December. The others are Silka Strauch, 38, and Zsolt Halda, 36.
Strauch, a yoga instructor who went into a coma Dec. 8 from the disease, remains in Hilo Medical Center. She’s able to respond to people with her eyes and hands much of the time and clearly understands what people are saying to her except during periods when she is “not there,” her friend Kristina Mauak said.
Strauch cannot talk because of the breathing tube in her throat, but smiles and cries.
Strauch’s parents, who came from Germany to be with her, have set up a German Web site and are doing interviews with German television in an attempt to raise money to take her back to their home country, Mauak said.
Before travel is even considered, however, Strauch has to be completely weaned from a breathing machine and free of infections.
Halda was treated for the disease and released in January.
Hilo Medical Center’s Dr. Jon Martell said of McCumber: “He’s made a strong recovery. The recovery for both of them (Strauch and McCumber) has been stronger than we expected.”
McCumber has maintained his humor despite his ordeal. When he first started talking in early April, his mother mentioned that his voice sounded like Darth Vader from the “Star Wars” movies. McCumber responded with, “Luke, I am your father.”
Minutes later, McCumber said, “I have been fasting a really long time. I’m really hungry.”
Both statements brought immense hope to his family.
“No one was sure if he would have to relearn how to speak, like a stroke victim,” Kay Howe said.
“Once he knew he could talk, you couldn’t get him to stop,” Lyn Howe said.
“It seemed like speech made his being back in the world real,” his mother said. In addition to English, he’s recalling Indonesian and Spanish.
Via an e-mail from his aunt, McCumber sent this additional comment on his situation to The Advertiser Tuesday: “Life really is like a box of chocolates; sometimes you get a chocolate-covered cherry and sometimes you get rat lung. In my case it was rat lung.”
His advice to others: “Don’t let a slug make you afraid to eat your vegetables.”