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Simple encounters with the environment led to death for two men

Widow of Joppa man says she is 'paranoid' about bees after husband's death

Harford County has been free this summer from major health crises caused by natural elements.

With spraying going on to fight the mosquito populations amid Zika virus and other vector borne disease fears, the region hasn't been completely tragedy free from other dangers that lurk in nature.

Two separate cases of men who died in July were the result of simple, everyday encounters with the outdoors.

Joppa resident William Donald "Donnie" Stuller, a Vietnam War veteran, retired BGE electric line worker and survivor of major heart and lung surgery, died after a yellow jacket stung him while he was working in his yard in late July.

Earlier in the month, Jerome Rodio, a resident of Chester County, Pa., and a retired Philadelphia police officer and Navy veteran, died after using Chesapeake Bay water to clean a scratch on his arm from a crab trap, according to a story posted on Philly.com.

The deadly bacteria Vibrio vulnificus, more commonly known as flesh-eating bacteria, was in the water. The bacteria occurs naturally in warm, brackish waters such as those of the Chesapeake Bay.

Mr. Rodio felt sick the next day, and he drove himself to a local Veterans Affairs clinic. He was transferred to the University of Maryland Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace and later flown to the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, according to the Philly.com story.

Mr. Rodio died July 14; he was 75 years old.

Mr. Stuller, 69, had been stung by yellow jackets last year, and suffered no ill effects other than pain.

"This is what's driving me nuts," his wife, Cathy, said recently. "He got stung last year, I treated him, he was fine – why now all of a sudden?"

While deaths from insect stings and Vibrio bacteria are not common, people with underlying health conditions could be at greater risk of serious illness or death. That's also the case with Zika and West Nile virus, also transmitted by mosquito bites. A Bel Air man died in 2004 from complications of West Nile, according to his family.

About 90 to 100 Americans die each year from allergic reactions to insect stings, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and about 20 people die annually from Vibrio infections, according to Philly.com.

"People with health problems need to be very, very careful being around bees," Cathy Stuller, 65, said.

Dr. Clifford Mitchell, director of the environmental health bureau for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said "there are things out in the environment which are potential hazards for everybody."

He said it is generally safe to be outdoors, and the bay is safe for swimming despite the bacteria, but he encouraged people to use "common sense" measures, such as avoiding stinging insects and staying out of the water if you have an open wound.

"If you know you have a [health condition], then talk with your health care provider about the things that you specifically should be doing," Mitchell said.

The Maryland Department of the Environment has guidelines posted online at http://bsun.md/2cTVzXI to help people avoid contact with Vibrio.

They include staying out of the water, if you have an open wound, or covering the wound, plus wearing protective footwear and wearing gloves, if working with crab pots or fishing equipment.

There are about 80 species of Vibrio bacteria, and not all of them make people sick, MDE spokesperson Jay Apperson said.

"You don't really have a level [of bacteria] that you can say, 'This is going to make people sick,' because different people are going to react differently," Apperson noted.

Kathy Brohawn, an environmental program manager for MDE, said the agency recommends people take precautions such as fully cooking seafood caught in the bay and cleaning wounds with soap and water or sanitizer.

"As long as the water temperatures are above 55 there is going to be vibrio in the water," she said.

Mr. Rodio’s son, Gene, said he and his children joined his father on a fishing trip in Rock Hall on July 11. His father was renting a place there and had good catches on prior trips, so he invited Gene and his children to join him.

“It was his new favorite spot,” Gene Rodio, who is 48 and lives in Philadelphia, said.

Rodio said his father showed him the scratch from the crab trap when they were on a fishing boat later in the day.

“We kind of laughed it off,” he said.

Rodio does not know exactly how his father came into contact with the deadly bacteria, as he did not say how it happened, but Rodio suspects his father washed the cut with water directly from the bay or used fishing rags that were on the boat.

They parted ways the evening of July 11. The next time he saw his father was in the hospital in Baltimore – he learned Mr. Rodio was there by a text message sent by hospital staff from his phone.

“I never spoke to him after the fishing trip, even via text,” Rodio said.

He said his father “wasn’t coherent” when he saw him, and he was heavily medicated. Doctors were preparing to perform surgery around the cut on his arm.

“It was really swollen up,” Rodio said.

He said his father “stuck through” the next day, but he died the morning of July 14.

“It happened so quick, [I thought] what the hell is happening here?” Rodio said. “It’s hard to explain, it really hasn’t hit me yet.”

Mr. Rodio's death has been ruled accidental.

The cause was listed as "multisystem organ failure, complications of right arm injury," according to Bruce Goldfarb, a spokesperson for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

'Bee sting with complications'

Mr. Stuller's death has also been ruled accidental. The cause of death was "bee sting with complications," according to Goldfarb.

The Stullers were in the yard of their Clayton Road home July 21, spreading mulch around gardens and flower beds.

They were clearing dead leaves from the base of a wisteria bush when a yellow jacket flew out of the ground and stung Mr. Stuller on the lip.

"He said to me, 'Get away, I just got stung by a bee,'" Cathy Stuller recalled.

She got her husband, who was wheezing, inside, treated the sting and helped him get his nebulizer machine started to treat his breathing.

Part of Mr. Stuller's lung was removed about four years ago during surgery, and he had been struggling with shortness of breath and pneumonia in recent months. He had also been through open heart surgery in May 2015, his wife said.

He went into cardiac arrest three times after he was stung, but he was revived and was being kept alive on machines at the University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air.

Stuller said doctors told her she had to consider letting him go.

She was told he would not have a good quality of life, "so I said, 'That's it, let him go, because that's not my husband.'"

Stuller went home, and she got a call from the hospital at 12:12 a.m. July 25 that her husband had died.

"Since this has happened to my husband, I am paranoid of being around bees," she said.

The couple had been raising their 5-year-old granddaughter, Zariah Adkins, and she must now care for the girl on her own.

She said Zariah, who was with her grandparents the day of the yellow jacket attack, has become more attentive to her, and she will make the occasional comment about something her grandfather would do or say, then go on to another topic.

"We know if she makes a comment there's something going on in her little mind that is bothering her," Stuller said.

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