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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, April 8, 2006

'Horrible, horrible death' by infection

 •  Woman blames infection on contaminated waters

By Beverly Creamer and Loren Moreno
Advertiser Staff Writers

Leonard Johnson and Friederike Boszko, the older brother and mother of Honolulu mortgage broker Oliver Johnson, describe the grotesquely deformed patient they saw dying in the hospital.

GREGORY YAMAMOTO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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A SUMMARY OF HIS FINAL DAYS

Night of March 30: Johnson goes out drinking at a bar near the Ala Wai Small Boat Harbor and may have ended up on a friend's boat.

About 4 a.m. March 31: Johnson keys himself into his Tradewinds apartment on Ala Moana Boulevard. Sometime after, he goes back out.

5 p.m. March 31: Johnson is seen by a Tradewinds security guard re-entering the property, staggering, with cuts and lesions on his face, and carrying a 40-ounce bottle in a brown bag. His clothes are damp and smelly.

6:30 p.m. March 31: An ambulance and police respond to the apartment building. Johnson tells police he was assaulted and thrown into the harbor. He is taken to The Queen's Medical Center and released around 10:30 p.m.

Last Saturday: Johnson speaks with his friend Dieter Giblan and complains of pain in his legs. Giblan brings him an over-the-counter painkiller.

Sunday: Johnson is taken by ambulance to The Queen's Medical Center, where he goes into septic shock and is placed in a medically induced coma and on life support.

Monday: Johnson's right leg is amputated. His mother later arrives in Honolulu from Florida.

Thursday: Johnson is removed from life support. At 9:15 p.m., he dies.

Source: Advertiser research

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WHAT KILLED HIM

The Honolulu Medical Examiner said Oliver Johnson, 34, died of multi-system organ failure due to septic shock brought on by a vulnificus bacterial infection.

Septic shock: An overwhelming infection of the blood

Vibrio vulnificus: A potentially deadly marine bacterium that lives in brackish seawater, but usually in small quantities. Under certain conditions, such as when extra nutrients are available, the water is dirty or temperatures increase, its numbers can multiply. The bacteria create toxins in humans that cause a flesh-eating cascade in the body.

Sources: State Department of Health, Honolulu medical examiner

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Oliver Johnson

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WITNESSES WANTED

Police ask anyone with information about an alleged assault on Oliver Johnson between late Thursday night and early Friday morning, near the Ala Wai Small Boat Harbor, to call the Criminal Investigations Division at 529-3115.

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As he lay dying, Oliver Johnson's body was so ravaged by disease that his mother couldn't even hold his hand, which had swollen to three times its normal size and was covered with huge blisters.

"The only thing you could really hold was a finger," Friederike Boszko said yesterday in an anguished description of her youngest son's last days.

The effects of the flesh-eating bacteria that killed Johnson after a plunge in the sewage-tainted Ala Wai Small Boat Harbor a week ago were so horrifying, "it was difficult to recognize him as a human being," said Boszko as she sat with her eldest son in the office of attorney Jim Leavitt.

The family has retained the attorney to investigate the circumstances of the 34-year-old mortgage broker's death.

The family said that at this point they don't want to assign blame and they are cooperating with a homicide investigation by police.

"We want to know the truth of what happened and the sequence of events," said Boszko, 61, of Boca Raton, Fla. "I want to know what caused this. It was not only a death, it was a horrible, horrible death."

She said no one should ever have to suffer what her son did.

"When I saw him, I refused to believe what I saw," she said. "His head was so huge and swollen ... , I can't describe what an unbelievable, nightmarish shock it was. In my whole life, in science fiction movies, I've never seen anything like it."

Leonard Johnson, 41, said he could only recognize his younger brother from the eyes up and even then, his eyelids, head, neck and even his earlobes were swollen far beyond normal size.

"You couldn't believe it was the same boy," he said.

Oliver Johnson died about 9:15 p.m. Thursday at The Queen's Medical Center after his family decided to remove him from life support.

MEDICAL EXAMINER

The Honolulu medical examiner's office said he died of multisystem organ failure due to septic shock brought on by a Vibrio vulnificus bacterial infection.

Dr. Kanthi De Alwis, chief medical examiner, said the bacterial infection was in his foot. He also suffered from chronic alcoholic liver disease, which contributed to the flesh-eating infection's ability to take hold.

The medical examiner is still investigating whether injuries to his foot and blunt-force trauma to his face resulted from assault or from an accident.

Leavitt said his office will look into all the facts and attempting to distinguish fact from rumor before any decisions are made about taking legal action. But, he said, "it seems fairly clear to me that had the sewage spill not occurred, he'd still be alive."

The Ala Wai Small Boat Harbor was contaminated when the city diverted an estimated 48 million gallons of raw sewage into the Ala Wai Canal after a sewer main burst in Waikiki.

Health experts are split in their opinions about whether Johnson's plunge into the harbor might have caused or contributed to his death.

But De Alwis said that Vibrio vulnificus is normally seen in warm bodies of water and not necessarily sewage-contaminated water.

"People who have alcoholic liver disease or chronic liver disease are more vulnerable to getting disseminated infection from this bacteria once it gets into the system," De Alwis said.

Nevertheless, Johnson's family called on government officials to make the waters safe. "We want to make sure nobody else ventures into that water until it's deemed safe," said his brother.

He said signs with large, bold lettering should be posted.

"If that (sewage) caused what I saw in my brother, nobody needs to go through that again. Nobody wants to ever see that happen to another person."

State Health Department officials say this case hasn't changed the way waters are tested or how contamination signs are posted.

However, Dr. Sarah Park, deputy chief of the department's Disease Outbreak Control Division, said the department is rethinking how it educates the public about proper wound care. Cleaning a wound properly decreases the amount of bacteria and the danger it poses.

Police have received conflicting information about the events that landed Johnson in the harbor and, ultimately, in the hospital.

Johnson told police he had been assaulted. Friends said that occurred after he had been drinking in a bar near the harbor. Later, reports emerged that Johnson might have been on a boat.

Police have talked to a man who said he was in a fight with Johnson on the night he ended up in the harbor, said Michelle Yu, Honolulu Police Department spokeswoman. However, the man told police that he did not throw or push Johnson into the water, Yu said.

Police and Leavitt urge anyone with information on the case to come forward.

Thursday night, as the family made the decision to remove Johnson from life support, his heart, liver and kidneys had shut down, his intestines were eaten up by bacteria, his bowels rupturing. One leg had been amputated, and doctors had cut a gaping hole from his breastbone down through his stomach, exposing his intestines in an attempt to counteract swelling so a ventilator could keep him breathing. The swelling was so intense, it was impossible to know the condition of his brain, said his brother, and he couldn't be stabilized enough to do a CT scan.

"His condition was so unbearably horrible, with a colostomy bag, being on kidney support for the rest of his life, having maybe no legs and maybe only one arm. I cannot imagine he would have wanted to live that way," said his mother. "And with no guarantee that he doesn't have brain damage or doesn't have to be on a ventilator for the rest of his life."

They couldn't bear that for the young man who was always comfortable striking up conversations with strangers the kind of friend who brought others together for events.

Six years ago, he followed a college girlfriend to Hawai'i. She returned to the Mainland two years later, but he stayed because he had fallen in love with "the kindness and the lifestyle" of Hawai'i's people, said his mother.

Her son was an outgoing person, said Boszko. "You'd be sitting on a park bench eating a sandwich and he'd come up to you and start a conversation. And not a silly conversation," she said.

"He was just a very outgoing, social person. A connector of people. He was not the kind to read a book in one night."

'NEVER HATEFUL'

His brother remembered how he'd be the one to arrange the beach barbecue, the event that brought people together.

"He brought different people together to enjoy life. That was him. He's always been that way. Never hateful. And he never treated anybody with bias. He just took every individual as what they were."

Oliver Johnson's close friend, Stephany Sofos, agreed.

She met him three years ago through work. They quickly forged a close friendship, she said.

"He was a very talkative, charming guy," she said. "Anywhere I went with him, within an hour he would have 10 people as his new friends," she said.

Sofos said the sense of loss she feels can be likened to losing a finger: "You can still use the hand, but it's just not the same."

Of all her memories of Johnson, Sofos said she will cherish the most their early Sunday morning surf trips.

"We would have the best time. We would walk in the park and we'd stop at a bar, have some pupus, have some drinks and walk home. We would laugh because we kept saying to each other, 'We got to talk to our doctors because we're exercising all the time but we're gaining weight.' That was the kind of guy he was just so funny," she said.

"It makes me sad. This is such a tragedy."

LOVED SURFING

Once Johnson discovered surfing as a boy, that became his passion.

Boszko remembered how in Florida he'd insist she come to the beach to take pictures of him on the waves.

"He would always tell me, 'Mom, go with me, take your camera,' and I would have to wade in the water and go 'OK, where is he? I can't see him.'

"I said, 'How can you like this, having the water all the time?' And he said, 'Oh, Mom, it's the greatest thing ever.' "

With seven years between Oliver and Leonard, the two bonded in the younger man's senior year of high school.

Oliver had joined the wrestling team and Leonard remembers how the two of them worked out and trained together that entire year.

It was a peak experience.

"He came in second place in the state championships," said Leonard, fighting back tears. "The next day my son was born."

Boszko's third son, John, 38, was expected to arrive in Honolulu shortly.

The family has not yet made any decisions about a funeral.

"I feel numb," said his mother. "You can cry and cry and cry and cry and you still feel the same. You don't feel any relief."

Reach Beverly Creamer at bcreamer@honoluluadvertiser.com and Loren Moreno at lmoreno@honoluluadvertiser.com.