Fatal Legionnaires' bug source unclear

August 12, 2009 5:43:25 AM PDT
There is no clear explanation of how a 37-year-old Chicago Transit Authority worker contracted Legionnaires' disease last month. Robert Pierce of Plainfield died Sunday of complications from the virus, two weeks after he was hospitalized. Pierce is being remembered as his family grieves his loss. ABC7 talked to his physician about how Legionnaires' disease is spread.

In happier times in Florida, Pierce and his wife Heather took in the Sunshine State with neighbors, a carefree life for the newlyweds who moved into a Plainfield subdivision in 2000.

"Great guy. Real personable, everybody liked him. Always willing to help you out. A stand-up guy," said Michael Doyle, neighbor.

The journeyman CTA electrician complained in July of flu-like symptoms after being splashed in the face by a large amount of warm water from a machine used to wash el trains. He was servicing the machine.

After getting a prescription for antibiotics from his doctor, he wasn't getting better and drove himself to Edward Hospital July 24. He had Legionnaires' disease, typically a water-borne virus that affects older people.

"He did not have underlying risk problems. He did have a smoking habit, which was a risk factor, but he was unusual in having such a severe case," said Dr. David McElligott, pulmonologist, Edward Hospital.

Dr. McElligott says the hospital has seen an unusual cluster of Legionnaires' cases in the last month -- two other victims recovered.

"As best we know there is no common thread to those individuals. All cases are reported to the department of public health and they will do further investigation," said Dr. McElligott.

The DuPage County coroner says Pierce's death was natural and cannot point to the CTA machinery as the source of the bug -- something the CTA echoes. The transit organization declined to speak on camera but says they've proactively had the train washers industrially cleaned and have the Chicago Department of Public Health's approval to keep using them.

"Everyone's devastated. It's not going to be the same. I'm still waiting for the glass door to open and the guy to come out. He's been my best friend," Doyle said.

Because the CTA is a Chicago organization, the city's health department is reviewing this matter, but ABC7'S calls for comment were not returned. No other CTA employees have shown signs of Legionnaires'.

And because Pierce lived in Will County, the public health department there is on the look out for more cases, but it is not concerned that this was anything more than a tragic outcome for a controllable disease.


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