Rare disease strikes Austin man

Many people think of leprosy as a Biblical disease or a disease that has been eradicated -- but it is alive and well in Texas. (File image)

Many people think of leprosy as a Biblical disease or a disease that has been eradicated -- but it is alive and well in Texas.

An Austin man just finished a scary journey trying fight off the bacteria that started crippling him.

"Here's my cane," Mel Riser said as he pulled it out of his car. "It became my friend for a while."

Mel could hardly walk without his cane. "My feet started going numb," Mel said.

He saw 15 different doctors and the best neurologists. "They ran a lot of neurological tests on me but they never could tell me why my feet were going numb," Mel said.

Then he says a cataract started growing in his right eye to the point where he couldn't see anymore. "At the time, I was kind of in bad shape." Mel said. "I had fallen down several times and hit my head."

Baffled, doctors couldn't tell him what was wrong until he got a red spot on his ankle.

"It was a red spot right here," Mel said as he pointed to his ankle. "That little dot that you see is where they did the biopsy. The inside started turning white and ashen gray and all the hair fell out."

So Mel went to a dermatologist for his red spot. He couldn't believe what he was about to hear.

"I was kind of floored," Mel said as he listened to his doctor. "He said the only thing this could be is leprosy. You're the second patient I've seen in my entire career here in Austin.

Leprosy, or Hansen's Disease, is a contagious airborne bacterium. 95 percent of the world's population is naturally immune to it.

But, armadillos are known carriers and the bacteria is found in the soil. Doctors think Mel somehow contracted the disease on Merritt Island in Florida while working for NASA. Armadillos are all over Merritt Island.

"They say I could have got it from a scratch," Mel said.

He was treated at the Texas Center for Infectious Disease in San Antonio.

"In the last three years, I've seen several cases," Doctor Annie Kizilbash said.

Dr. Kizilbash was one of Mel's doctors. "Leprosy is very treatable," Kizilbash said.

It is not the death sentence it used to be. "If it's caught early and the patient is started on treatment, early enough the patient can live a very normal life," Kizilbash said.

There were 19 new cases of Leprosy reported in Texas in 2014, 21 new cases in 2015 and so far, this year 17 new cases. About 180 patients in Texas are being treated for the disease right now.

If it's not caught early, the consequences are devastating.

"You can get auto amputation of your digits," Kizilbash said. "Your toes, your fingers they can potentially fall off and that's because you don't have feeling in your toes or hands."

The way Leprosy ravages the body and the creation of leper colonies have created a stigma around the disease that's hard to get past for many people.

"When you tell people you've got it they kind of step back and say maybe I shouldn't be too close to you," Mel said.

Mel just finished a year of treatments. "I'm cured," Mel said. "No more red spots. I don't have a cane."

Mel's medical treatment included three antibiotics and two nerve drugs. "The feelings come back in my feet and my hands," Mel said.

And the cataract in his right eye started shrinking. "The good news is it's curable," Mel said.

And he did not have to pay a dime for treatments. The costs of the antibiotics and nerve drugs were picked up by the National Hansen's Disease Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Mel says his journey was long and scary but he found hope and help. Now he encourages anyone with the same symptoms to see help and not give up.

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