When eating game, beware the worm — Hunter sickened by undercooked bear

Photo courtesy of Sullivan family. Sully Sullivan was featured in a TV show after surviving a bout of trichinosis.

Photo courtesy of Sullivan family. Sully Sullivan was featured in a TV show after surviving a bout of trichinosis.

By Joseph Robertia

Redoubt Reporter

For a hunter, having a taxidermal display of the hide of the head of an animal can bring back fond memories of the hunt. But for the family of Sully Sullivan, these recollections are not always as enjoyable.

“The hide is here on the floor and it’s an awful-looking thing,” said Joy Sullivan, of Nikiski, of black bear her husband, Sully, shot in July in a remote area near McGrath while rebuilding a burned-down hunting camp.

Joy is not opposed to seeing mounts around her house. Rather, her reasons for not liking to look at this particular hide are twofold. One, the bear was still shedding its winter coat, so the fur on the hide is a bit patchy and mealy. Two, the bruin nearly killed her husband, though it wasn’t through a mauling or any other near-death encounter with the bear’s sharp claws and gnashing teeth. It was a much more subtle threat than that.

Sully didn’t begin to understand the trouble he was in until nearly six weeks afterward.

“He started getting really sick,” Joy said. “He’s an extreme guy, so he doesn’t complain or get thrown off by little aches and pains, but he was really sore, to the point he was having trouble moving, and he had severe headaches.”

The symptoms continued for days and finally came to a head when Sully’s stiffness got so bad that he couldn’t even turn his head left or right without being in unbearable pain. Joy recommended he take a hot soak in an Epsom salt bath, but that only exasperated his symptoms.

“He became delirious, hallucinating and totally noncoherent,” Joy said.

She rushed Sully to the hospital. Initially the doctors were stymied by what they were seeing. All indications were that Sully was suffering from something viral, or from some form of meningitis. However, blood tests didn’t reveal anything of the sort. Doctors kept testing and interviewing Sully to determine what could possibly be causing his illness. He mentioned his run-in with the bruin a couple months earlier.

“He mentioned he had shot a black bear and cooked and ate some of it,” Joy said.

This tidbit was an “a-ha” moment that put the doctors on the correct path to diagnosing the cause of Sully’s ailments. They sent a sample to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and two weeks later it was confirmed — Sully was suffering from a trichinosis infection.

“Worms!” Joy said. “He had worms.”

With trichinosis, a person is infected with the larvae of a particular species of roundworm, typically as a result of eating undercooked pork, although it is not uncommon in wild game, as well.

According to the CDC, the worms begin in the intestines, where they can cause the host nausea and diarrhea, but as they use their piercing mouthparts to migrate into the bloodstream and tissues, their travels can cause extreme pain and damage to the lymph nodes, eyes, heart and brain. Between 2002 and 2007, roughly 11 cases were reported per year within the United States.

“They gave him a dewormer and kept him in the hospital for a while to monitor him,” Joy said.

Sully made a speedy recovery, for the most part.

“He still has some side effects. He came down with the flu recently and he got way sicker than he usually would have. He got a high fever and more pain than normal from still having cysts in him, but we’re hoping for a full recovery in time,” Joy said.

Sully, being an avid outdoorsman, posts a lot of his adventures on YouTube, and he doesn’t hold back from posting his misadventures, as well. After positive feedback from family, friends and Internet viewers on some of his exploits related to hunting this bear, Joy wrote Animal Planet to inquire if they would be interested in sharing some of his stories.

“Guess which one they jumped at?” she said. “They came out in May and filmed for three days. They did interviews and had us do re-enactments, and bought all of Sully’s videos, some of which they used in the episode when it aired.”

The specific program was “Monsters Inside Me,” a series that “reveals what happens to unsuspecting victims when the smallest creatures turn out to be the biggest monsters,” according to the show’s website. The episode featuring the Sullivans, No. 5 of season four, was titled, “My Husband is Hallucinating.” It aired on TV earlier this month, but is still available for download from iTunes, according to Joy.

Joy said that her family has learned from her husband’s experience, and what they will do differently in the future.

“Well, the CDC is aware that bears in that area have trichinosis now, so they can warn people,” Joy said.

“We’ll still eat bear meat, but Sully will definitely be more apt to cook it better now,” she added.

As for the bear hide lying on her living room floor.

“It’s going back over to McGrath,” Joy said. “It can hang on the wall where it came from.”

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Filed under bears, health, hunting

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