Reporting John Lauritsen
WATERTOWN (WCCO) — People travel to Hawaii to relax and get some sun and surf, but a Minnesota man’s trip to paradise turned into a nightmare after he contracted a paralyzing disease.
Eric Reinert is 22 years old and learning to walk all over again.
He’s taking baby steps and it can be hard to keep his balance, but they are a long way from where he was just a month ago.
He was stuck in a wheelchair in a Hawaiian hospital all because of a microscopic parasite.
“Every movement was just dreaded – horrible, awful, terrible,” said Reinert.
Last November, he traveled from Watertown, Minn. to Hawaii’s Puna District to learn about organic farming. His plan was to someday open his own farm back home.
But it wasn’t long before he started getting stomach cramps and his muscles began feeling weak. Then the unknown illness took a painful turn.
“Just staying as still as I could on my back was the only way I could be at peace for a little bit,” said Reinert.
His nervous system became hypersensitive. As he lay bed-ridden, it took a lot of mental willpower to move even an inch. Every vibration his roommates made caused excruciating pain.
“When they would walk I would just cringe at them walking. Just the slightest vibrations and in the hospital later on,” said Reinert.
After a few days, Reinert ended up in the hospital, and lucky for him, that’s where a doctor figured out what was wrong. He diagnosed him with “Rat Lungworm Disease.”
“A lot of people in Hawaii don’t know this exists, I didn’t know it existed. I wasn’t told about it because I’m sure the people I lived with didn’t know it exists,” said Reinert.
It’s extremely rare and it’s as nasty as it sounds. The lungworm parasite lives in rats and comes out in their droppings. A slug in Hawaii eats the parasite and that same slug lays its eggs on fruits and vegetables. Eating some produce that wasn’t washed is likely how he got the parasite.
Losing feeling in parts of his body is part of the disease.
“Honestly … this left side of my face is still numb,” said Reinert.
He was hospitalized for more than a month and still using a wheelchair when more than 40 of his closest friends and family welcomed him home.
Support continues to roll in through his Caring Bridge site, as his parents’ living room has become his recovery room.
Neighbors have been bringing Reinert and his family dinners a few times a week.
He’s lost 50 pounds, and is far removed from the local boy who won a state wrestling championship just a few years ago, but he knows baby steps will ultimately get him to where he needs to be.
“Every day it gets a little better. It’s kind of a roller coaster with the pain but overall, that’s what I tell everybody. Overall, I’m getting better every day,” he said.
Doctors said Reinert will eventually make a full recovery.
He said his mother and his faith in God have helped him get stronger.
His friends have already helped raise more than $3,500 for his medical bills including a race they organized on New Year’s Day.