Dan Anders and his wife, Anne, were wrapping up a glorious summer vacation when they arrived in Pelican Rapids, Minn., in early August to visit friends.
They had just spent three weeks on the road, visiting the great parks of Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas. But Anders, 61, an active outdoorsman from Florida, was feeling a little "punky," as he put it.
"I was overtired," he said. "That's what I thought."
Two days later, he was fighting for his life, with a case of anthrax that triggered a state investigation and brought the FBI to his hospital room.
On Monday, Anders was released from Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, where he was hospitalized for three weeks, much of it in critical condition.
Doctors say Anders survived a rare and extremely deadly type of anthrax infection, which they assume he picked up from natural sources on his road trip.
His illness prompted a nationwide alert because anthrax can be used as a terrorist weapon. And medical experts are still trying to figure out how he managed to breathe in the deadly spores, which can exist in soil and infected animals, while doing nothing particularly dangerous.
"We were tourists," said Anne Anders, his wife of 36 years. "And now look where we are."
Today, her husband is a little weak and prone to coughing fits. But otherwise, as he prepares to head home, he says, "I'm feeling pretty good for what I've been through."
The couple, who live in St. Petersburg, had never been to the Upper Midwest before July, when they flew to Fargo to begin their long-awaited trip. They rented a car and drove west -- to Yellowstone and to Wind Cave National Park and Custer State Park in South Dakota. "All the dirt roads and ponds, we saw it all," Anne said.
Dan, who is retired from the irrigation business, occasionally picked up garnets and other rocks to use in making jewelry. The couple drove through a herd of bison, but got no closer than any other tourists did, he says.
By the time they reached Minnesota on Aug. 3, they'd covered thousands of miles. Dan went fishing with his pal the next day. "That's the last thing I can remember," he said.
At the hospital in nearby Fergus Falls, he was treated for pneumonia. But Dr. Joe Meyer was alarmed by the X-ray: It was unlike any case he'd ever seen. "I knew that this was going to be something serious," he said.
Meyer sent a specimen to the lab at the hospital, Lake Region Healthcare; the results showed an uncommon bacillus strain -- the same family as anthrax. He overnighted a sample to St. Paul, and the Minnesota Department of Health confirmed it.
Rare and deadly
Throughout history, few people have survived this form of anthrax, which is inhaled through the air. Once in the body, the bacteria release deadly toxins, which can cause organ failure and death.
It's the same substance that someone mailed to a number of politicians and media figures in 2001, killing five people. In the past, it was mainly an occupational hazard for people who worked with infected animals or hides.
"It's an extremely rare occurrence," said state epidemiologist Dr. Ruth Lynfield. "It isn't something that one would expect in somebody coming to their ER." So the staff at Fergus Falls, she said, deserves credit for acting so quickly. "They knew what they were doing, and they were able to put the picture together."
Anders was transferred by air ambulance to HCMC on Aug. 7. Within hours, "he was on life support," said his wife.
As Anne Anders sat by her husband's side, a small army of federal and state investigators came calling. They asked the same questions: Where had they traveled? How could Dan have been infected?
The FBI wanted to rule out terrorism, and the agent "was very nice," she said. "I'm sure he knew everything there was to know about us already." Health Department investigators, clad in protective gear, combed through the Anderses' rental car, checking the air filters, wheel wells, souvenirs, everything, for anthrax spores. They found none.
A daughter's wish
In the meantime, Anders was getting a series of powerful antibiotics, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta sent a special treatment called immunoglobulin, designed to fight the deadly toxins.
It was touch-and-go for days. Their daughter, Malita Clark, arrived from Orlando a few days before her 31st birthday. She told her mother she had only one wish: "I want my dad to sing happy birthday to me."
Slowly, Dan started improving, opening his eyes, squeezing his hands, moving his toes. On Aug. 17, Malita's birthday, he sang to her.
"That," says his wife, "was probably the first time that I really realized things were going to be OK."
"It's such a remarkable story," said Dr. Mark Sprenkle, a lung specialist who treated Anders at HCMC. Anthrax is "an incredibly serious disease, one that most people don't get through."
By last Friday, Anders was sitting up in bed, eating lunch and chatting about his ordeal. One of his doctors, he said, told him that at one point, he had only a 5 percent chance of survival. "It was something to hear," he said matter-of-factly.
Anders has a history of beating the odds. In the Air Force, his AC-130 gunship was almost shot down over Vietnam. Eleven years ago, he survived a horrific car crash. And now this. "He's Mister Miracle Man," said his wife.
Just how he got anthrax -- and why his wife didn't -- is still a puzzle.
"We haven't completed our investigation," said Lynfield, "but it may yet remain a mystery."
Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384