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New details about the rabies-infected organ donor

Some fresh details are now emerging about the dead man whose donated kidney fatally infected another person with rabies.

The Associated Press reports that William Edward Small, 20, was a North Carolina airman training to become an aviation mechanic at Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida. In August 2011, he began vomiting and suffering abdominal pain, prompting him to visit a base clinic; four days later he was transferred to a civilian hospital, where he died.

Small's family was told he had died of food poisoning or a stomach virus; the Defense Department said his death was caused by "severe stomach and intestinal inflammation with complications including dehydration and seizure," according to the AP report. The Florida health department said he died of encephalitis, or a brain inflammation.

Last week, a spokesperson with LifeQuest, the company that facilitated the organ donations, told the Toronto Star that rabies was not suspected or tested for, largely because it is so rare in the U.S. -- instead, doctors deemed Small's cause of death to be ciguatera fish poisoning, which is diagnosed based on a patient's symptoms and recent activities. The AP report says that shortly before his death, Small had called his father to say he had recently gotten sick after eating a puppy drum fish he'd caught in the Gulf of Mexico.

LifeQuest spokesperson Kathy Giery said Small was an avid hunter who reportedly had contact with raccoons and other wildlife. Investigations have determined that Small and the Maryland man who received his kidney were both infected with a raccoon-type rabies -- a rare form that has only ever killed one other person in the United States.

As one might expect, Small's family has been hard hit by the news -- more than 16 months after his death -- that their loved one's final act of giving has inadvertently cost another man his life.

"The bad part for me is knowing that someone actually died because of it — thinking that he thought he was doing everything right," said Small's father, also named William.

A tearful Small also spoke of his son's generosity.

"If he had it, he would give it to you," he told AP. "Anything that somebody wanted, all they had to do was ask. And that's just the type of person he was."

But his son also donated organs -- another kidney, his heart and liver -- to three other recipients, who are reportedly alive and well. They are now being treated for rabies, just in case.

The elder William Small said that he feels terribly for the family of the man who died because of his son's donated organ. But at the same time, "there are three people still alive because of him."

Jennifer Yang is the Toronto Star’s global health reporter. She previously worked as a general assignment reporter and won a NNA in 2011 for her explanatory piece on the Chilean mining disaster. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar


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