Julia's story, a warning for all pet owners

Julia Wood (26) and her partner Ashley Emmer (36) look the picture of health but three years ago it was a very different story when Julia nearly lost the love of her life to Weil’s disease – a little known illness that you can catch from your dog.

Julia and Ash’s future flashed before them when Ash was given a survival rate of just 15% all as a result of just a normal day at the office. Julia and Ash’s personal tragedy began only three weeks after Ash had accepted a new job as a Chartered Building Surveyor for a commercial property company in Nottingham. Julia and Ash believe that his near-death experience, involving multi-organ failure (liver, kidney and lung shutdown) may have occurred as a result of completing a survey.

As a healthy and active individual who enjoyed mountain biking and running, Ashley thought he had a strong constitution so when he began to experience flu-like symptoms, he just took to his bed to try and sleep it off. One bed-bound week later, however, he felt no better.

“I was conscious that my new boss would think I was pulling a sickie or that I wasn’t interested in the new job, actually later confirmed by one of my colleagues - but I felt terrible. I could barely walk, my legs were incredibly weak and I couldn’t keep any food down. Later I realised why. I was suffering from liver failure,” recalls Ash.

When Ash told his girlfriend Julia, who was about to graduate, that he was going to drive to his mother’s home in Dunstable in order to go to his local doctor, she feared that it could be more than a bout of “man flu”. Ash’s mother rushed him to the doctor who initially dismissed it as flu. The symptoms worsened over the weekend, requiring home visits from the doctor. It was thought the problem may be infectious hepatitis, causing a serious dilemma for the doctor regarding the potential spread of infectious disease in a hospital. Eventually, Ash’s mother demanded that he was admitted to the Luton and Dunstable hospital where he was later diagnosed with liver and kidney failure.

Julia had been looking forward to her graduation at Gloucester Cathedral, but after the weekend realised that Ash would not be by her side. “I wasn’t really fully aware of how ill Ash was, but believed that he was in the best possible care.” Unbeknown to Julia, whilst she was celebrating her graduation without him, her boyfriend was being ‘bluelighted’ to the specialist liver unit of King’s College Hospital in London at midnight. His condition was now critical.

Ash still remembers his trip in the ambulance as being surreal, but what remains etched on his mind is, “when I arrived on the Intensive Care Ward, I asked a doctor if I was in trouble and she pointed out that I could be hit by a bus, clearly trying to avoid a straight answer; from that I worked out the severity of the situation.”

When Julia got home from her celebrations that same night, her mother and sister ushered her “to come in and sit down”.

Julia remembers: “I was told how ill Ash was and that he was waiting for me to visit. I didn’t know what to expect, but as an Animal Science student thought nothing medical could faze me. I couldn’t have been more wrong. When I got to the ward I just didn’t have the courage to see Ash at first, but eventually I pulled myself together. I found him covered in tubes and attached to monitors; that part I could cope with. What really upset me was his colour, his eyes and his whole body were so yellow and jaundiced due to the liver failure. It was unlike anything I’d seen before and none of the other liver patients looked as yellow as Ash. I couldn’t fight back the tears any longer and had to leave the ward.”

The next few days were critical; Ash underwent numerous tests and biopsies but his condition continued to decline. Then, he developed a secondary lung infection rendering him with only 20% lung capacity. Julia, along with Ash’s family, were faced with complex decisions associated with dialysis to granting permission for a tracheotomy.

Julia recalls: “This was the worst time, Ash was sedated and I had no way of communicating with him. Together with his family we had to make these decisions in his best interests. I went to visit him every day to sit with him, even though the journey there and back was four hours and he was just lying there unable to communicate. I was trying to be as rational as possible, but I honestly didn’t know whether I would ever speak to him again. All I did was to sit, wait and hope.”

Ash remembers the first day or so in the hospital, until being sedated: “I thought I was going for a liver biopsy, but I woke up 8 days later after being put on dialysis. I think I was a bit of a handful for the nurses and not particularly co-operative! The one thing I do remember distinctly was hearing my mother’s voice while sedated, which had quite a positive effect on me. I also remember a kind of mixture of bad dreams and hallucinations. Obviously I was pumped full of drugs as the doctors were fighting the symptoms without knowing what the cause was, which must play tricks with your mind. The build-up to the Iraq war was just beginning and that featured heavily in my dreams. At one point I believed I was on a troop train or a Hercules plane. I think the bleeps from the monitor must have triggered something.”

After spending three weeks in intensive care, Ash was brought round and was eventually diagnosed with the human form of leptospirosis – Weil’s disease. It transpires that the flu-like symptoms he had experienced were the initial signs of the onset of leptospirosis. After being given excellent care at Kings College, he was transferred back to Luton and Dunstable hospital to continue his recovery. Julia and Ash remember the after-effects of the disease as being almost worse than the jaundice.

”The fluid retention was so bad his legs looked horrible – in fact they looked as if he had big stumps like elephant feet. It was difficult to imagine that this would ever subside, but eventually I did.” Julia says.

Ash recalls the day he was allowed to go home as one of the most emotional days of his life.

“I couldn’t wait to get out, but had no idea that I had spent an entire three weeks in hospital. I remember being wrapped in a blanket and thought that it had got cold. It was at this point that it dawned on me that Julia was due to go travelling to Australia. I grabbed her wrist to look at the date on her watch fearful of the fact that she would be off soon.

I then saw that the 2nd November had long past and that she had clearly cancelled her journey. I was so relieved, happy and emotional all at the same time.”

It took Ash a good three months to fully recover before being allowed back to work. The biggest surprise for him was having to learn to walk again as his leg’s muscles had wasted considerably after being bed-bound for three weeks.

His first job back was conducting a survey on an old warehouse in York, which happened to be so heavily populated by pigeons that pigeon faeces completely covered the floors. Well aware of the potential risks, Ash now carries antibacterial wipes everywhere he goes to wipe his hands after climbing or being on potentially infected ground. He is particularly cautious of any cuts he may have or putting his hands close to his mouth as these are the easiest ways to contract the disease.

“I was aware of Weil’s Disease and that rats carried it, but didn’t realise the connection to leptospirosis. I also didn’t realise that it’s quite so easy to catch. All it takes is to come into contact with rat’s urine, or your dog’s urine if it has been infected via the rat, and you can contract the disease. Contact with urine infected water such as rivers and ponds are also a risk. I am now acutely aware of the dangers and would advise people to take precautionary measures to prevent such a disease.”

Julia, whose parents own dogs, reiterates that “we’ve always vaccinated our dogs against leptospirosis and other potentially fatal diseases and I would encourage others to do the same. It horrifies me to think that this disease left Ash fighting for his life with only a 15% chance of survival and that this disease can affect humans as well as dogs.”

Three years on from this traumatic time, Julia and Ash are now happily living together and making the most of what life has to offer.

You may not be able to protect yourself from rats, but you can protect yourself and your dog from catching leptospirosis disease by having him vaccinated. If your pet has not been vaccinated in the last 18 months you could benefit from the vaccination amnesty, which is part of National Vaccination Month. During March your pet can receive a full vaccination course for the price of a booster – saving you up to £30.

Just log on to: www.vaccinationmonth.co.uk
for your voucher and a list of participating vets.