Florida Retiree Gets—and Survives—Anthrax

A medical victory remains a medical mystery

Buffalos grazing at a national park.

Stock photo by Getty Images

Something rather remarkable happened to 61-year-old retiree Dan Anders from Florida while he and his wife, Anne, were on a 3-week vacation. Somewhere on their journey through national parks in Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakotas, Dan picked up a rare and extremely deadly type of anthrax infection. Dan’s story starts with the extreme misfortune of getting inhalation anthrax. But some exceptional medical care and expertise, spot-on timing, and good judgments resulted in his exceptional fortune to survive the lethal disease.

When Dan arrived at a friend’s home in Minnesota on August 2, 2011, he was feeling a little “punky,” but figured he was just road-weary from their long adventure. But 2 days later, on August 4, he was much worse, and instead of going home as they had planned, he was admitted to the hospital. Dan thinks that was the first in a series of good decisions that helped save his life.

He was treated for what was thought to be community-acquired pneumonia. But he did not improve. An alert doctor at the local hospital, a “country boy” as Dan fondly called him, ordered more blood cultures because he was reminded of something he had seen growing up on cattle farms. And the “country boy” doctor was on the right track. Cattle and other hooved animals in the upper Midwest are known to get anthrax, even though people rarely do. Dan thinks that doctor had a hand in saving his life.

Dan Anders from Florida and his wife, Anne.

Dan Anders had a close-call with inhalation anthrax. His wife, Anne (in the background) calls him “Miracle Man.” Photo courtesy of the Star Tribune/Minneapolis-St. Paul, 2013

So did the determined lab technician who helped Dan on a late Friday afternoon. She drove her own car to get the culture, which had been identified as a type of Bacillus bacteria, to the overnight delivery service just 15 minutes before the last pick up. The Minnesota Department of Health laboratory, part of the Laboratory Response Network, worked overtime that weekend and quickly made the determination: this was the highly lethal Bacillus anthracis that causes anthrax. CDC was notified immediately and started the protocol for anthrax. Had the lab results been held up until Monday, Dan’s not sure he would have made it through the weekend.

Dan was transported by a medical aircraft to a larger hospital in Minneapolis. Despite being terribly ill, he remembers that he insisted that his wife not drive him the long distance to the hospital. Another good call, because he might not have survived the trip.

Inhalation anthrax produces toxins that can quickly cause multisystem organ failure. Dan recalls that they “gave him less than a 5% chance of making it.” CDC rushed in a specialized antitoxin (anthrax immunoglobulin) and sent two medical officers to monitor the treatment. Dan, close to death in a medically induced coma, began to respond. He thinks CDC’s rushing in the anthrax immunoglobulin was the turning point in his battle to survive. He recently reflected, “Ever since I got back home, I’ve wanted to call CDC to thank them for saving my life. I just didn’t know who to call.”

“Ever since I got back home, I’ve wanted to call CDC to thank them for saving my life. I just didn’t know who to call.”

—Dan Anders

Fortunately, Dan was well enough to be discharged a few weeks later, on August 29. However, his weakened state meant that he needed a cane to get around and was facing a long recovery ahead. Even 2 years after his close-to-death encounter with anthrax, he deals with after-effects, like low energy, muscle aches, and migraine headaches. But he acknowledges that there’s also been a good side effect—every day he wakes up feeling lucky to be alive.

Yet there’s still the nagging question that will probably never be answered—how and where did he get the anthrax? After Dan recovered, CDC and state and federal partners combed through data and examined potential exposures encountered on his trip— from rocks he collected for making jewelry to bison herds he and his wife drove through— but were never able to identify the source of his exposure to anthrax. Just why he— and not his wife Anne—got the deadly infection remains a mystery. To this day, Anne calls him “Miracle Man.”