A man who nearly lost his life in New York City’s first instance of bubonic plague in more than 100 years has died of an unrelated illness in a Santa Fe, New Mexico, hospital, his wife said Thursday.
John Tull was diagnosed with a rare cancer last month, but doctors didn’t believe it was connected to his previous health struggles, said Lucinda Marker, his wife. Tull was 65 when he died Wednesday.
In November 2002, the New Mexico couple was on vacation in the Big Apple when both came down with flu-like symptoms including a fever and swollen lymph nodes. They were diagnosed with the plague, an exceedingly rare disease that wiped out a third of Europe in the 14th century. It was considered New York’s first plague case in more than a century, but doctors said Tull and Marker had likely become infected back home in Santa Fe.
While Marker recovered within days, Tull was hospitalized for more than two months. He fell into a coma and both of his feet were amputated.
With the case coming in the relative aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, speculation and scrutiny were rampant. Marker said she was questioned for days by a “parade of people” from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the FBI and New York City health officials.
“They thought we were possibly terrorists or victims of bioterrorism,” Marker said.
Dr. Ronald Primas, the New York physician who diagnosed and treated them, remembers the media frenzy surrounding their cases. “I did like 40 interviews in two days,” he said.
Primas said everyone wanted to know if there was evidence the plague was caused by bioterrorist activity or if it would spread.
“Had (John) waited another day, had he gone out into the public with the cough he had, theoretically he could have spread it,” Primas said.
About seven plague cases are reported across the U.S. each year, and the disease can be treated with antibiotics, according to the CDC. Worldwide, between 1,000 and 2,000 cases are reported to the World Health Organization, the CDC says.
Fleas that feed on infected rodents or other mammals typically transmit the plague bacteria. Researchers have said the case of Tull and Marker was pivotal in helping them understand why plague persisted in Santa Fe County, where the couple lived.
Despite his hardships, Tull faced everything with humor and a cheerful attitude, Marker said. “He never stopped loving life — even after he woke up and had his legs amputated,” Marker said.
According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, which first reported Tull’s death, the couple was writing a book about their experiences. Marker intends to finish it.
She said Tull would always advise people to be diligent and not let an illness or the recovery process wear them down.
“He would say, ‘You’ve got to work as hard as you can when you are sick. When they tell you to do something, do it twice as hard,” Marker said.
Tull is survived by three children from two previous marriages.
A memorial service is planned for Aug. 9.
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