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Is Rich Brown the first algae victim?

As Rich Brown pulled his broken-down fishing boat for hours along the banks of Lost Creek Lake in August, he gave little thought to the soupy green water he was walking in, swimming in and occasionally gulping.

"I always thought like everybody else, that this algae isn't that big a deal," says Brown, 40, of Central Point. "And my mind was on something else. It wasn't my primary concern."

After nearly six hours of pulling the dead boat, a passerby took notice and rescued Brown and his wife, Angela.

Rich Brown went to bed that night exhausted and sore, expecting to wake up with little more than a good cocktail-party story and a desire to stick a "For Sale" sign on that damn boat with the vintage 1957 outboard.

A day later, Brown's living hell began. Intense vomiting. Diarrhea. Vertigo. Nausea. Abdominal pains and abject lethargy that has left the pharmaceutical sales rep unable to work and function the past seven weeks.

Brown believes he is a victim of cyanotoxins, the product of cyanobacteria — better known as blue-green algae — that has become one of Oregon's largest environmental public-health concerns among lake users unsure whether it's a legitimate health risk or a red herring.

Brown believes he's living proof that it's legit.

Fourteen doctor visits and enough blood-draws to sate a vampire later, no one's been able to say whether Brown is Oregon's first confirmed blue-green algae victim.

No diagnostic tests exist for cyanotoxins in living humans, and toxicologists say finding cyanotoxins in his tissues now would be a crapshoot at best.

The Oregon Health Authority is aware of Brown's case, but cyanotoxins are considered unlikely even though his symptoms read almost verbatim from the public-health advisories posted at lakes during blooms.

The main reason for doubt is that Brown's symptoms started two days after his possible ingestion — outside the normal 24-hour window for toxin-related illnesses, says David Farrer, the health authority's toxicologist.

"Usually it's the same day that you know you're sick," Farrer says.

Farrer speculates that Brown's illness is probably due to some parasite from the water. While his case remains open, the chance of proving cyanotoxins were involved is virtually impossible.

"For cyanotoxins this far out, I'd be really surprised if they could find any — even if it did cause the problem," Farrer says.

Brown changed doctors Wednesday. He's looking for someone — anyone — who knows about blue-green algae toxins and can help.

"At first, I kind of pooh-poohed the idea of it," Brown says. "But I know now that I'm not right, and nobody can figure out what's wrong with me.

"But A plus B usually equals C," he says.

There's no easy equation with algae, which are actually strains of bacteria. Some forms have sickened and killed people world-wide, while others do little more than cause swimmer's itch.

Since water managers started looking for it seven years ago, it's popped up all over western Oregon in lakes and reservoirs.

An Oregon State University microbiologist is now studying some of the strains to see whether they are capable of producing the toxins capable of sickening or even killing people.

While no one has been diagnosed with cyanotoxin illness in Oregon, two dogs have been confirmed to have died from it. They were diagnosed because their stomachs were removed and the water inside them tested positive for the toxins, Farrer says.

That's obviously not an option for Brown.

So far, the doctors who have told him he probably didn't get sick because of blue-green algae also admit they don't know anything about the stuff, he says.

"It's happening in other states, too," says Jennifer Ketterman, who manages Oregon's Harmful Algae Bloom Surveillance Program, which has issued 24 public health advisories for blue-green algae this year, including the current one at Lost Creek Lake.

Public-health officials are trying to get doctors up to speed on the algae and the toxins, but there isn't a lot known about them to pass on to people.

The diagnoses for cyanotoxin are "presumptive," meaning they are based on ruling out other diagnoses and illnesses while also considering the patient's exposure history, Ketterman says.

"It's a challenge," Ketterman says. "A lot of people in the general public don't link their illnesses to blue-green algae even though they were swimming in it."

There was no advisory in place that August day the Browns spent on Lost Creek Lake.

Angela Brown says she swam in it for 20 minutes and ended up with a bad rash.

Rich Brown still gets dizzy and nauseous.

To him, it has to be the algae. He just wishes someone could tell him what it is, and help him.

"It just makes sense," Brown says. "A plus B equals C."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email mfreeman@mailtribune.com.