Houston man loses hands, parts of his feet after flea bite

A Houston man is recovering after losing both of his hands and parts of his feet to a flea bite.

Michael Kohlhof, 35, was visiting his mother in San Antonio in June when he started feeling sick. He had flu-like symptoms and some gastrointestinal issues.

On June 19, Kohlhof was admitted to the emergency room. By the next day, he was on a ventilator and his organs were failing. Doctors diagnosed him with a severe case of typhus, which is a bacterial infection spread by fleas.

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"Within a few hours, they said he has sepsis," said Kohlhof's mother, J'Leene Hardway. "And by the next day, he was admitted to ICU with septic shock and intubated and put on a ventilator, CRT, which is a 24-hour dialysis. Then within 24 hours, they said to call in family members to kind of come and say their goodbyes to him."

Hardway said doctors used "every drug they could think of" to save her son's life, including antibiotics, steroids, and vasopressors. The vasopressors saved Kohlhof's life, but they also caused damage to his hands and feet.

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Photo courtesy of J'Leene Hardaway/Greg Kohlhof

Kohlhof has since had both of his hands amputated to his forearms and has had one of several surgeries planned for his feet. He is still in the hospital, but he is expected to make a full recovery.

Dr. Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist with UT Health Houston School of Public Health, said cases of typhus have been on the rise in Texas in recent years.

"We used to just see it basically in the southern part of Texas," Troisi said. "But over the last ten years, we've seen more cases. If you look across the state, there's no county that doesn't have at least a few cases."

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Photo courtesy of J'Leene Hardaway/Greg Kohlhof

Typhus is spread by fleas that are infected with bacteria. The fleas can be found on rats, cats, opossums, and other animals.

The symptoms of typhus are similar to those of other diseases, such as the flu. They include fever, muscle aches, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, and a rash.

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Typhus is treatable with antibiotics. However, if it is not treated, it can be fatal.

Troisi said the best way to prevent typhus is to avoid being bitten by fleas. She recommends keeping your pets' fleas under control, not leaving pet food outside, and making sure your trash and compost are sealed tightly.

If you spend time outdoors, it's recommended you wear EPA-approved insect repellent.