Man contracts rare disease possibly linked to his land in Park Rapids, Minn.

A Minnesota man who loves living alongside a lake may be endangering his own life by doing so. He has a disease that has now sickened more people in the state than ever before, but it is still considered rare.  

Imagine being trapped on the land you love, unable to go, but a bit afraid to stay. That’s the situation for a 50-year-old Scott Donahue, who continues to battle blastomycosis.

On the northwest edge of Potato Lake in Park Rapids sits Scott Donahue’s piece of paradise. The six acres have been in his family for years.

“We have good memories here,” he said. 

But it’s very possible what the Donahue family loves has something in it that almost killed Scott - and did kill the family dog, Buck, in July 2018. 

“He just started developing this pretty nasty cough,” said Max Donahue, Scott’s son.

Even with two rounds of medication, Buck died from blastomycosis, a disease that comes from a naturally occurring fungus called blastomyces. It develops in soil and the spores go airborne, allowing people and animals to breathe them in. Just nine months after Buck died, Scott got sick with the very same thing. But, it took weeks for an accurate diagnosis. Also complicating things was his diabetes. 

“I started to develop a real harsh cough to the point where I’d get sick I was coughing so hard,” he said.

After a pneumonia diagnosis and medication, the situation worsened. He ended up at the local hospital, and doctors sent him to see a specialist in Fargo where he was finally diagnosed with blastomycosis. But, by then, his health had drastically deteriorated to near death. 

“When they told them that they should probably get my family together…that’s something you don’t want to hear,” he said. “They told the kids if I go on the ventilator one more time, I’m not coming off.”

In fact, Scott was near death three times. But, after three months in the hospital, he finally got well enough to move home. His 20-year-old twin sons were there for him and still are, as Scott is no longer the same man he was just a few months earlier. 

Scott missed his summer on the lake and can’t lift or walk far. He’s now most comfortable not doing much at all, but he is grateful for his boys.

“I’d be in a living facility if it wasn’t for them. I couldn’t drive, so they’d pick up my prescriptions for me, and they’d buy groceries and bring me home lunches and stuff…do my laundry because I can’t lift a laundry basket and carry it,” he said.

Since the diagnosis, life on the lake has changed. There’s now an overwhelming feeling that something is lurking in the land they love - and that may be true. 

The Minnesota Department of Health says the fungus survives the winter and can stay in the soil year to year. There’s no soil test, so you can’t even pinpoint where on the land the fungus might be. Even so, Scott says he has no plans to move, especially knowing resale might be a challenge. 

He now worries about the kids getting sick, as the twins also have no plans to move.

“Worrying about it isn’t gonna help me not get it or anything, so I just kinda try to not think about it and live life out here, I guess,” Max said.

There’s a year left on Scott’s medication, and what recovery looks like for him remains unknown. 

“I miss being on the water. I miss being able to walk faster. I miss my body not hurting all the time,” Scott said.

Blastomycosis has made 75 people sick in Minnesota and usually about 10 percent of that number will die. It’s not known what’s spiking the number for sure, but preventing it may be impossible. The best advice is to be aware that it’s a possibility. The medication is expensive, so if you’d like to help, click here.