HARTLAND – Only 16 of Niagara County's roughly 215,000 residents have been diagnosed with Legionnaires' disease this year.
Yet three of them, including one of the two known fatalities, were members of the same extended family.
Stranger still, the three live in three different eastern Niagara County communities.
Six weeks after Richard A. Jepson, 68, of the City of Lockport died July 22 of the pneumonia-like illness, his ex-wife and stepdaughter were hospitalized with the disease – but they both survived.
Patricia Lord, 70, the former wife, lives in a remote location in Hartland, far from any industries with cooling towers, such as those that could have contributed to an outbreak of eight cases in Lockport this summer. Debra Trammell, 50, the stepdaughter, moved to Newfane in June after living several years in Georgia.
The diagnosis "was a shock, especially since Dad just died from that. And all of a sudden we get it?" Trammell said. "It was very scary."
Both women were hospitalized on the same day, Sept. 8, at Eastern Niagara Hospital.
Jepson lived on Beverly Avenue, a street abutting the hospital property.
In September, the hospital's cooling tower, part of its air conditioning system, failed a state-mandated test for Legionella, the bacteria that causes Legionnaires' disease. The disease is caused by breathing in the bacteria. The hospital's cooling tower passed a similar test in June, hospital spokeswoman Carolyn A. Moore said.
The Niagara County Health Department says Legionella is a naturally occurring bacterium in the environment, though it seems to like water and moist spots such as cooling towers. However, Public Health Director Daniel J. Stapleton said no evidence so far has tied the Eastern Niagara Hospital cooling tower to any of the eight Lockport cases. The incubation period – the time between a person's exposure to the bacteria and the start of symptoms – is two to 10 days, according to the Health Department.
It's a mystery how Lord and Trammel caught Legionnaires' disease. Their doctors and the county Health Department have not been able to determine where they were exposed to the bacteria, the women said.
Lord and Trammell said neither of them spent much time visiting Jepson on Beverly Avenue, although Lord said she talked to Jepson, whom she divorced in 2001, on the phone every day. Lord said a Health Department investigator called her and wanted to know where she had traveled lately – she hasn't traveled recently – and where she might have eaten.
The county Health Department, citing privacy concerns, has not confirmed either of the Legionnaires' deaths, although the state Health Department has done so.
"I think there should be more information out there, especially if you've got people dying," Lord said.
The News learned of Jepson's death through his granddaughter, and his death certificate says Legionnaire's was a contributing factor to his death, along with after-effects of two sessions of chemotherapy for bladder cancer, which he was diagnosed with in June. Lord said Jepson was scheduled for cancer surgery in September, but he fell ill with Legionnaires' in mid-July.
Before Jepson became ill with flu-like symptoms, "He was doing real good," Lord said. "He was told if he wasn't feeling good, if he spiked a fever or anything, he was to go right to the hospital. Of course, this wasn't done, so by the time he went over to Lockport hospital, three days later, I believe, he was really, really sick."
Jepson was weak and feverish and had lost his appetite, Lord said. He was transferred to Buffalo General Hospital, where he died. "They said his lungs were completely filled up with all this gunk and stuff," Lord said.
Jepson, who was in the Marine Corps from 1965 to 1968 and served a tour of duty in Vietnam, had worked for many years at the former Harrison Radiator plant in Lockport.
[Obituary: Richard Arlen Jepson]
No details about the second Legionnaires' disease death have come to light so far.
Lord and Trammell spend considerable time together because Trammell drives Lord to her medical appointments. Lord underwent surgery for uterine cancer in May 2014, after 32 radiation treatments, and Trammell suffers from COPD - chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
That tends to confirm Stapleton's statement Wednesday that all the Niagara County people who have caught Legionnaire's Disease this year had compromised immune systems.
Both Trammell and Lord became ill on Sept. 4, but they didn't go to the hospital – Eastern Niagara – until Sept. 8. "Debbie went by ambulance, because she was worse," Lord said.
"I had the dry heaves, vomiting, diarrhea. I couldn't keep anything down, not even water," Trammell said. "I wasn't even alert to what they were doing the first few days I was there. I was on oxygen. They sent me home with oxygen. I was just cleared to get off the oxygen two weeks ago."
Lord was hospitalized for four days, Trammell for 10 days. They were sent home with antibiotics, which are the primary means of treating Legionnaires' disease.
"They don't give you too much information," Lord said. "I asked, 'How do you know when this is out of our system?' And they said, 'When you start feeling more like yourself and back to normal, then you'll know it's out of your system.'"