Reinert tells his rat lungworm story for cable TV program

A3-EricReinertMugAs somebody who still feels the effects of a rare parasitic disease that once left him hospitalized for seven weeks in Hawaii, it’s not surprising that Eric Reinert is familiar with the Animal Planet television show, Monsters Inside Me.

In fact, the 23-year-old Watertown-Mayer High School graduate, who contracted rat lungworm disease during a work-exchange trip to Hawaii in the fall of 2011, says he even joked with family and friends that maybe one day he would be featured on the show, which tells the stories of people that have battled rare parasites either on or inside their bodies.

Now, it seems like Reinert will likely be able to do more than just joke about it.

Animal Planet producers and a camera crew were in Watertown last Wednesday to film interviews with Reinert and his family, as well as other footage. for an upcoming episode of the show. Reinert said he doesn’t yet know when the show will air, but he expects it to be part of the new season in the fall.

Reinert said he was somewhat surprised when his family was contacted about doing the show shortly after his story was updated on the local WCCO news in February. However, he said it wasn’t a total shock, given his story’s natural fit on the program, and he added that the decision to participate was an easy one.

“I said yes in a heartbeat,” he said. “It’s pretty much a once in a lifetime opportunity, and it will also help get awareness out about the disease. That’s kind of the biggest thing for me, because I still don’t want other people to get it and have to go through what I did.”

Reinert’s story began during what was supposed to be a four-month work-exchange trip to Hawaii. Reinert was to live and work on an organic farm, and after departing from Minnesota in the fall of 2011, he was scheduled to return home in February 2012.

But, just two weeks into the trip, Reinert fell gravely ill, and after several weeks, was diagnosed with eosinophillic meningitis, more commonly known as rat lungworm disease. The disease is typically contracted from eating unwashed produce that is contaminated with a microscopic parasite that lives in the lungs of rats. The parasite ends up in the rat’s feces, is ingested by snail slugs, and then typically is ingested by humans on the surface of produce.

The disease, which attacks the central nervous system and can cause permanent brain and nerve damage, left Reinert in a bed at Hilo Medical Center for seven weeks. During that time, Reinert was often in too much pain to move, and even something as simple as dropping a tiny piece of fruit on his lap or brushing a napkin across his face would cause agony.

Even today, Reinert still feels the effects of the disease, although he says he has come a long way over the last year. Reinert even started playing men’s fastpitch softball again last summer, and this spring is helping out pitching batting practice for the University of Minnesota softball team as he finishes up school there.

At this time a year ago, even several months after returning home to Minnesota, Reinert was still trying to relearn to walk and run, he had to wear gloves to protect his ultra-sensitive hands, and he was often weak and fatigued easily.

“I’m doing much better even since then,” Reinert said. “I’m a lot stronger, faster and have more coordination. I’m on less medicine and there’s less pain. I wouldn’t say I’m back to normal, and not even entirely close, but definitely closer than I was. I don’t see improvements from day to day, but I see them from month to month.”

Reinert’s story quickly became well-known throughout the area, and he’s been featured on local Twin Cities news programs several times. As a former high school state champion wrestler, his story drew particular interest in the wrestling community, and his Caring Bridge Web site has now been visited more than 100,000 times.

Now, it seems that a national audience will also hear Reinert’s story. The show Monsters Inside Me features interviews and dramatizations that tell the stories of people like Reinert, as well as the science behind their diseases. Reinert said television crews arrived at his home at 8 a.m., and filming wasn’t finished until about midnight.

Reinert said both he and his mom were interviewed for several hours apiece as they detailed their story from beginning to end. Later, they moved to the Crown College medical center to film re-creations of Reinert’s time in a Hawaii hospital bed. Reinert said the whole process was fascinating.

“We did re-enactments, and they shot at least five or six times apiece of each scene to make sure they got it right and they got the point across,” he said. “It was really cool how they did that. It wasn’t just one take, but a lot of takes and lot of different angles of the same thing. There was a lot of repetition, and that was really interesting.”

Contact Matt Bunke at [email protected]