When Mike Lavorel developed a rare infection, likely from something he ate, it didn’t look like he would survive. Less than a year later, the Bethesda dad was coaching soccer again—and adjusting to challenges he never expected.
It’s his first day back. More than 11 months have passed since the last time Mike Lavorel walked into his office in Southwest D.C., across from the Mandarin Oriental hotel. As a crew works on remodeling the master bathroom of his Bethesda home, partly to make it easier for Mike to move around, he and his wife, Jennifer, are getting ready for their 35-minute commute into the city.
“The big drama today is, will Mike’s pants fall down—and will he be able to do anything about it?” Jennifer says with a smile. He lost 65 pounds after he got sick, and he’s only gained some of it back, but he keeps putting off buying new clothes.
“Are we going to work?” Jennifer asks him. It’s 8:03 a.m. on Feb. 21, and her tone makes the question sound more like a command.
“Got everything you need? Snacks? Cellphone? Badge?” Check. Check. Check.
After joking that he’ll drive—he’s lost most of his fingers—Mike, 55, climbs into the passenger seat of the couple’s Ford SUV. His schedule at the office, where he works as chief information security officer for the CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield Federal Employee Program, includes a morning meeting, but he’s used to that. He’s been telecommuting for six months, using a stylus and his damaged left thumb to tap out texts and emails, and to dial into conference calls. Aside from physical therapy three mornings a week, he’s spent the bulk of his days at home working, then watching some news, helping his sons with their homework, and conking out on the couch.
“This ride seem familiar, honey?” Jennifer asks as they approach Ward Circle in Northwest Washington. They commuted together before Mike’s illness—she’s a housing voucher policy specialist at the nearby U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)—but Mike would typically drive.
“Been awhile,” he says, “but yeah, it’s coming back.”
When they arrive at Mike’s build-
ing, he emerges from the SUV and his wife gets out to say goodbye. As they embrace on the front sidewalk, Jennifer starts to cry. Upstairs, he’s greeted with hugs, balloons and a breakfast buffet. Holding back tears, he tells co-workers more about what happened to him and thanks them for their support. He will get through this day, on his prosthetic legs, because that’s what he does—he keeps going. But for a while, Jennifer didn’t know what was going to happen to her husband. Last year, Mike spent nearly two weeks in a coma and four months in four different hospitals after contracting a rare bacterial infection presumably from something he ate. At one point, doctors gave him a 3% to 5% chance of survival.
These days, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, life doesn’t look much different for the Lavorels than it does for many families. Mike is back to working from home. Jennifer does the grocery shopping. They go for walks every now and then, and one day they went to Brookside Gardens in Wheaton to enjoy the spring blossoms. Their kids—Nic, 13, and Jack, 17—have been sleeping late and trying to keep up with their schoolwork. For Mike, physical therapy sessions now take place via Zoom.
“We were just getting back to normal when the quarantine hit,” Jennifer says.
In Mike’s version of what happened to him, he got the special oyster. “The one with the prize,” he says. It was a Saturday night in March 2019, and the Lavorels went to dinner with friends in downtown Bethesda. Mike ordered a plate of raw oysters on the half shell as an appetizer for the table. Everyone had at least one. He ate three.
The next day, Mike and Jennifer went to Nic’s travel soccer game in Virginia. That evening, Mike began having chills. On Monday, he woke up with a fever and nausea. He called in sick and threw up all day. The couple thought it might be the flu or food poisoning.
By Tuesday morning, he had stopped vomiting, but his body ached. A pharmacist recommended Pedialyte to help with rehydration, but even after drinking the liquid all day, Mike’s condition worsened. By early evening he’d become incoherent. He wanted water but couldn’t get the words out. Jennifer got ready to drive him the mile and a half to Sibley Memorial, the nearest hospital, but Mike couldn’t make it to the SUV.
She dialed 911, and at 7:46 p.m. an EMT unit left the Glen Echo Fire Department in response to a call for an individual having trouble breathing. The five-member crew, led by Lt. Victor Graves, a Rockville lawyer who volunteers there, arrived four minutes later and determined that Mike was in severe respiratory distress. Instead of going to Sibley, they took him to Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, the only state-designated trauma center in Montgomery County. Jennifer drove herself, thinking Mike would have to stay overnight, and wondered how she would get her boys to their activities the next morning.
“I had no idea what I was in for, ” she says.
Jennifer arrived at Suburban’s emergency department to find Mike on a gurney in the hallway. Then he was moved into a bay with a curtain, where a medical team worked to insert a breathing tube through his nose and into his trachea so his lungs would get oxygen. She could hear the urgency in the doctors’ voices. Someone gave her Mike’s wedding ring and a chair to sit on. Nearby, another patient was asking for food. Jennifer locked eyes with the woman, who was seated on a stretcher in the hallway.
“He is going to be OK,” the woman said. Jennifer began to cry.
After several tense minutes, a doctor emerged to tell Jennifer that the intubation, while difficult, had been successful. But Mike’s blood pressure had plummeted to 76 over 40. His heart rate was 160, far above normal, and his temperature was 103.3. He was showing signs of septic shock, which can lead to organ failure and death. To raise his pressure and get blood to vital organs like the heart, lungs and kidneys, the team employed three vasopressors, medications that stimulate contraction of the major arteries but may limit the flow to extremities. It’s a trade-off that ultimately can lead to necrosis—the death of skin and tissue—and amputations.
After more than two hours, Mike was moved to the intensive care unit. He would soon be placed in an induced coma and put on life support. But first the ICU physicians called in a specialist. The next day, Vasilios Pyrgos, an infectious disease doctor, asked Jennifer some questions: Had Mike been scratched by a cat? What had he eaten recently? Jennifer mentioned the oysters, and Pyrgos suddenly met her gaze.
“Oh,” he said, and stopped asking questions.
Kent Streeb, a friend of Mike’s, flew in from California on Wednesday to see him and be there for Jennifer. Streeb had played matchmaker for the couple in 1993, when he and Jennifer were both temping for Ernst & Young, a professional services firm, in Tysons Corner.
Jennifer, a Detroit native with a master’s degree in city planning from the University of Michigan, had moved to the D.C. area in 1991 in search of housing policy work, but in the midst of a recession she took what she could get. For several years she worked a string of unrelated jobs that included copyediting for a magazine as well as writing and editing training manuals—before landing full time at HUD at the start of the Obama administration.
Mike was born in D.C., but traveled the world because his parents were in the Foreign Service. He’s lived in the Philippines, Paris, Luxembourg, Belgium, and Geneva, where he attended high school and learned to ski. That led him to the University of Colorado. There, he majored in economics and “minored” in skiing. When Mike went to Ernst & Young one day to help Streeb with a computer issue, he told his friend that he was impressed by Jennifer. She had a boyfriend, so Mike asked Streeb to let him know if that situation changed. Eventually it did, and Streeb made up an excuse for Mike to go to Jennifer’s condo, ostensibly to pick up some French books that Streeb needed.
“Kent said, ‘Just have some beer in your house,’ ” Jennifer recalls.
Mike made her laugh, she says, and he liked her dry sense of humor. They shared a passion for hiking and traveling, and both were drawn to France, where Mike’s family roots extend back to medieval times. One of his ancestors came to New Orleans in the 1850s and eventually wound up in Oakland, California, where the family operated Lavorel’s French Laundry. A picture of the clan in front of the establishment late in the 19th century hangs in the Lavorels’ laundry room. Mike’s father, Warren, was a star ballplayer for a Yankees farm team in Modesto before pursuing a career in the Foreign Service, where he was deputy director general of the World Trade Organization. Mike’s parents divorced, and his mother, who lives in New Mexico, is retired from the State Department.
“I loved listening to his stories [about] growing up in Europe,” Jennifer says. “He has tons of friends, [he’s an] extrovert. I’m more of an introvert. …Opposites attract.”
She and Mike dated for two or three years before marrying on June 20, 1998, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. They moved into Bethesda’s Crestview neighborhood a year later; Jack, their first child, came along in 2002, Nic four years later. Mike’s father died suddenly in 2011 from a heart ailment, and prior to Mike’s illness, that’s the only time Jennifer can recall her husband crying.
In the ICU, Pyrgos quickly made a presumptive diagnosis. Mike’s symptoms were caused by Vibrio vulnificus, a species of bacteria that can lead to life-threatening infections and necrotizing fasciitis, commonly referred to as a “flesh-eating disease.” The Vibrio bacteria, which can cause different forms of an illness called vibriosis, is found in brackish water and can inhabit raw or undercooked bivalves, including oysters. Mike had oysters twice that week. On March 28, he and three buddies went to the Washington Nationals’ season opener at Nationals Park in D.C., and then to a nearby oyster bar. The Saturday dinner in Bethesda was two days later.
With global warming, the bacteria has been migrating north, into the Chesapeake’s brackish waters, according to marine biologists and climate experts, and the Lavorels learned that the oysters Mike ate in Bethesda had come from Virginia Beach, at the mouth of the bay. (Pyrgos later speculated that the New England oysters Mike ate in D.C. were probably OK and not related to his illness.) People with healthy immune systems can usually eat oysters without any problems; no one else at dinner with Mike in Bethesda that night got sick. But Mike’s immune system had long been compromised by medicines he took for ankylosing spondylitis, a rare arthritic condition he’d had since the early 1980s. As a result, he’d had both knees and hips replaced, his right ankle fused and had undergone neck surgery. His friends called him “Iron Mike” because of all the metal replacement parts. Naturally athletic, he walked with a slight limp.
“If there is anything wrong with [the] immune system, there is a high risk [of] developing an overwhelming infection with this organism,” Pyrgos says.
Routine blood tests performed at Suburban could have detected Vibrio vulnificus, Pyrgos explains, but it is often a matter of luck and timing—the bacterium is not chronically in the bloodstream, so there is only a 50% to 60% chance of detection. But from what Jennifer told him, and from Mike’s overall epidemiology, Pyrgos felt he had enough information to report what he called a “likely case of vibriosis.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are an estimated 80,000 cases of vibriosis in the United States each year, resulting in 500 hospitalizations and 100 deaths. The illness can also be caused by a wound infection after exposure to seawater. In patients with Vibrio vulnificus, about a quarter die; in those who develop sepsis, like Mike did, the death rate rises to 50%, with most dying within 48 hours of infection. Many people who have a Vibrio vulnificus infection require limb amputations. Pyrgos says he sees a case maybe once every five years. In 15 years at Suburban, Kimberley Kelly, the critical care nursing director who helped care for Mike, had never seen one. A rotating ICU physician who had initially told Jennifer, “We will pull him through this,” looked at his chart two days later and said, “I don’t like what I see.” To Jennifer, it felt like a betrayal.
With Mike in a coma, Jennifer didn’t know what to say to the couple’s sons. Another physician had told her that there was a 20% chance that her husband would make it; she didn’t know that other doctors had given two of Mike’s friends a different figure—a 3% to 5% chance of survival—and that they said they’d done all they could. Streeb told a mutual friend, “Can you believe that Big Mike’s getting taken out by a f*****g oyster?”
A hospital social worker advised Jennifer to tell the boys that their father looks scary, that he’s hooked up to a lot of machines and that they didn’t have to come see him if they didn’t want to. Nic, then a sixth grader at Westland Middle School, chose not to visit while his dad was unconscious. “Nic kept saying, ‘I’ll just wait and see Dad when he comes home,’ ” says Jennifer, 54. “You don’t want to say he might die in the hospital.”
On Thursday, two days after Mike was admitted to the hospital, Jack went to his father’s bedside. Then a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, he’d been focusing on schoolwork, and despite what he’d been told, he was unprepared for what he saw. His dad was unconscious, immobile, all hooked up to IVs and monitors. Crying, Jack put his hand on his dad’s arm. A nurse told Jack that when he was talking to his father, Mike’s blood pressure went up, a good sign that suggested he knew his son was there. Jack told his dad he loved him, and that he knew he’d want to see him grow up.
Jack left the hospital determined to be strong for his parents. At home, he looked after Nic and learned that he actually liked to cook. But Nic was kind of lost, sad, keeping to himself, Jack says. Nic visited Mike when he was out of the coma, though still unable to speak.
While Mike was in the hospital, a circle of relatives, friends, and friends of friends rallied around the Lavorels. Rebecca
Cooper Dupin, a close family friend, met with counselors at Westland and B-CC (who in turn spoke with the boys), visited Jennifer, and went to Suburban some nights so Jennifer could go home and rest. Dupin and another friend, Donna De La Cruz, posted updates to the CaringBridge website to keep everyone in the loop about Mike’s condition. “Jennifer was so scared. We were all so scared,” Dupin says. With Mike in a coma, Dupin read to him from the newspaper. Jennifer had asked her to skip the bad news, so Dupin read him an article about spring cleaning. “For when you get out of the hospital,” she told him.
Early on Sunday, April 14, Mike awoke from the coma, but he had tubes everywhere and couldn’t talk. It was the middle of the night, and he was alone. He still remembers a weird dream he had just before waking. In it, he told people that he was a CIA agent working to unravel some conspiracy on the African continent. When he finally awakened, the room was dark, he was unable to lift his arms, and he thought he had been knocked out by the person who was after him. Then he closed his eyes, concluded that it was just a bad dream and went back to sleep.
Later that morning, he woke up and his wife was with him. “You’ve been through a lot, Mike,” Jennifer told him. “You’re probably wondering what’s happening to you. Don’t worry. We’ll let you know later. You have to rest.”
A few nights later, awake in the darkness, Mike spied a shadow at the door to his hospital room. It was a physician who happened to be in the emergency room when they brought him in, but wasn’t working on his case. Mike didn’t know it, but the guy had given him a 1% chance of surviving.
“I wanted to see the miracle man,” the doctor said.
Mike’s condition stabilized, but his limbs were purple and black. A vascular surgeon had warned Mike and Jennifer that amputations might be necessary to prevent infections and a much worse outcome. The first amputation—Mike’s left leg below the knee—took place at Suburban on May 10. It wasn’t the missing portion of his leg that Mike noticed first; it was the excruciating pain he felt as the anesthesia wore off. “Help me! Somebody help me!” he yelled. A nurse tried different combinations of pain medications to ease his discomfort.
A friend recalls him saying later, “Good, I’m glad that one’s gone—that was the bad one.” Eventually, Mike would find out that he could walk faster on prosthetics than he had before. At one point, he told his sons, “Don’t take advantage of your dad because I’ll have iron legs in the future, and I’m really gonna kick your butt.” As Mike left Suburban on June 6, wearing a D.C. United shirt, 40 staff members lined the hallways. Music played in the background, the voice of Marvin Gaye singing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
Mike was transported by ambulance to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where doctors would decide what had to happen next. After each amputation, Jennifer says she held onto hope that it would be the last, until she learned it wouldn’t. The second amputation—Mike’s right leg below the knee—required two surgeries at Hopkins in June. Amid his ordeal, Mike also contracted a potentially deadly MRSA infection three times—once at Suburban, again at Johns Hopkins, and right before he was discharged from D.C.’s MedStar Washington Hospital Center, where he had been admitted on July 28 for kidney stones after about a month next door at the National Rehabilitation Hospital for occupational and physical therapy. Once Mike got home, it fell to Jennifer to administer IV antibiotics twice a day for two weeks for the MRSA.
Efforts to save Mike’s fingers were ongoing. Twice a day, nurses had soaked them in a saline solution, then rubbed off the dead skin, applied an antibiotic ointment, and put a cream on—a routine Jennifer continued once her husband was home. All of his fingers were bent, which made getting under the knuckles harder. Mike and Jennifer were actually relieved when a doctor at Hopkins inspected Mike’s fingers at an appointment in late August and said, “Yup, they’re gonna go.”
“It was clarity,” Mike says. “Time to just focus on the next step. I said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ ”
On Saturday, July 20, with Mike due home soon, five of his friends came over to build two ramps—one with reflectors from the curb to a walkway, another from the backyard into the house, both wide enough to accommodate his wheelchair.
Jon Lamb, who’d been going to baseball’s spring training in Florida with Mike every year since 2004, runs a landscaping company and organized the efforts. Jennifer was initially reluctant to accept the help, not wanting to take advantage of anyone, but she relented and Lamb recruited the rest of the crew—his brother, Mark, J.J. McCoy, Fritz Beuker and Dave Plant. The temperature hit 97 degrees that day, and they worked from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., stopping only for water breaks. “We just happened to pick the hottest day of the year,” says Plant, who also built a portable ramp at his home in Northwest D.C. so Mike could come over to watch D.C. United games.
Throughout the ordeal, Jennifer hadn’t been sleeping in the couple’s bed. Instead, she slept on the couch in their small living room, waiting for Mike to come home from the hospital. On Aug. 3, he finally did.
Eight days later, Plant, his son Jackson and Steve Comer, another close friend, took Mike to a D.C. United game against the Los Angeles Galaxy—another milestone. He was still in a wheelchair, so they were seated in a handicapped area at field level. It was Armed Forces Day at the stadium. Mike was asked about the urinal in his bag as he went through the metal detector. A greeter handed him a program, noticed his missing legs and thanked him for his service. “Thanks, but I was not in the military,” Mike replied. “An oyster took me down.”
After a month at home, he began teleworking full time.
“Mike never complained,” Jennifer says.
His response: “What’s the point?”
“I complained all the time,” she adds. Later, she catalogs her complaints: being tired, having to take Mike to the bathroom, having to give him showers. “I was exhausted, cranky. I should’ve done a better job of just being glad he was alive.”
Last fall, while still in a wheelchair, Mike managed to coach Nic’s recreational soccer team. He had help from an assistant coach, a young woman who happened to be an assistant medic in the Glen Echo Fire Department. Most of Mike’s time was filled with visits from nurses, physical therapy and work. But there was one major milestone: On Sept. 24, Mike got his prosthetic legs. “They felt heavy,” he recalls, “though they are lighter than normal legs. It was awkward, a foreign feeling.”
In December, Mike visited the Glen Echo Fire Department to see the crew that saved him. “I tried to talk with them [but] I started getting emotional,” he says.
“His body had been ravaged by a rare bacterial infection,” Lt. Graves recalls. “Yet there he was, bounding into the station, practically jogging, on prosthetics fitted just a few weeks earlier. …Mike came to the station to thank us, but the truth is each and every one of us want to thank him. We thank him for reminding us why we do our jobs.”
Mike says he tried to emphasize that his life depended on the decisions they made. “If they had taken me to the wrong hospital, I wouldn’t have made it,” he says.
On Jan. 13, Mike is still telecommuting, working from the front room of the family’s single-story 1936 house off Western Avenue east of Westmoreland Circle. The house has been remodeled twice since he and Jennifer bought it in 1999, and now it’s undergoing a third to help accommodate Mike’s mobility issues. A design firm remodeled the bathroom and declined to charge the family for its services. The plumber also refused payment.
With headphones on, Mike speaks to one of his network security managers, who asks about an upcoming surgery on his left thumb in preparation for a prosthesis. Skin will be grafted over the exposed bone. “It’s not major surgery,” Mike says. “It’s just a thing with my thumb—unless they cut my thumb off, and that’s a different problem.” The “thing” would take place two days later in an outpatient procedure at Washington Hospital Center.
Right now, he says, “I can open doors, I can go up and down stairs.” He lost four fingers on his left hand; the fingers on his right hand were removed just below the knuckles. He still has part of both of his thumbs. Eventually, with prosthetic fingers, he’ll be able to drive. On his prosthetic legs, Mike is close to his former height of 6 feet 2 inches and plans to get back on the ski slopes.
A few weeks later, on a Sunday morning, the Lavorels get a quiet table in the back at Compass Coffee in the Spring Valley neighborhood of Northwest D.C., where they often go for weekend outings. “We’re trying to get out and have fun, other than changing bandages and emptying urinals,” Jennifer says. She parallel parked right in front so Mike could manage the step from the SUV to the sidewalk.
“I am the chauffeur,” she says. “He’s going to start calling me Jeeves.”
Mike’s wearing shorts, with sneakers on his prosthetic feet. He orders a croissant and a cafe au lait, which he manages to lift almost effortlessly with his thumb and the stumps of his fingers. As Jennifer shares the details of the previous nine months, she occasionally tears up, and Mike hands her a napkin.
“[It] feels like we’ve just had [a] long pause,” she says. “[We] want to go back and travel again. …He’s doing really well. He puts his legs on by himself in the morning.”
Jennifer invited 300 people to their home for Mike’s birthday last September, and neighbors planned to block the street to accommodate the overflow. But he had fingers amputated just days earlier, so she instead hosted a dinner for 10. A few weeks later, Mike and six of his buddies celebrated at Lia’s in Friendship Heights. Riffing off the popular Michael Jordan “Be Like Mike” Gatorade commercial, they all wore T-shirts that read: “Who doesn’t want to be like Mike?”
Mike fights back tears now when he reflects on everything that’s happened, releasing emotions he kept in check at the time. He believes he is experiencing a form of PTSD.
“He has always loved life and friends,” Jennifer says. “He has always been up for a glass of wine or a beer with friends. None of that has changed. What is new is that now and then he becomes emotional. Something will remind him of what he went through, or he will comment about what he imagines we went through, and he gets choked up.” He had that kind of reaction when he read an email from his mother-in-law recalling his unflagging positivity and his wife’s supporting role.
“There was a lot of pain,” Mike says. “But you think about it too much, you could end up in a bad place.”
Humor helps. On Feb. 29, at another D.C. United game, the temperature was in the low 30s, even colder with the wind chill. Mike wore shorts but a big heavy jacket. He made it down the 15 steep steps to his regular seat in Section 106 and joked that it was so cold he couldn’t feel his toes.
“Wait a minute,” he said, “I don’t have any toes.”
Eugene L. Meyer is a contributing editor for Bethesda Magazine and the author of Five for Freedom: The African American Soldiers in John Brown’s Army.