July 17, 2008

NY Woman Eats the Wrong Mushroom and Dies Horribly

Readers who follow my mushroom-related entries have probably noticed by now that whenever my collections include any species of Amanita I include a warning about not eating them. More generally, I try to dissuade anyone from eating any wild mushroom based on my photos and descriptions unless they've had the specimen identified by an expert.

Unfortunately, Zoila Tapia of White Plains, New York took it upon herself to become a cautionary example of why I include such disclaimers. The 61 year old ate some mushrooms she found at a rest stop on Interstate 684 in Bedford. They were something close to Amanita bisporigera. She went through the full nightmare of amatoxin poisoning and died in exactly three days, a textbook case if there ever was one.

Fear of mushroom toxins should never dissuade amateur mycologists from their hobby. They should only dissuade them from consuming the mushrooms they find. The Journal News has the sad story:

Woman eats wild mushrooms, dies

By Greg Clary and Rob Ryser

The woman who died after eating poisonous mushrooms helped hospital staff identify the type of fungus that eventually would kill her, after she arrived at the emergency room with intestinal pain, the Westchester medical examiner said yesterday.

Zoila Tapia, a 61-year-old White Plains resident, had eaten white mushrooms she picked July 6 and went to White Plains Hospital Center the next night.

Dr. Millard Hyland, the Westchester County medical examiner, said by the time Tapia sought medical help, her kidney and liver function had already been compromised and her chances for survival were quickly declining.

"This is a really treacherous poison," Hyland said yesterday. "These nature poisons go right to the target tissue - the liver cells and kidney cells. When these organs start failing, then you have digestive problems. It's too late at that point."

The medical examiner used information from hospital staff and his examination of the body to determine that Tapia likely had consumed Amanita bisporigera, known as "the Destroying Angel..."

Hyland said people survive ingesting poisonous mushrooms, but they usually require a liver transplant. Tapia had been put on the list for a replacement liver during the three days she was treated after being transferred to Westchester Medical Center. She died July 10, Hyland said.

Tapia worked for a company that manages rest stops for the state Department of Transportation. She routinely cleaned and mowed the areas around the rest stop, officials said. She picked the mushrooms she saw at the Interstate 684 stop in Bedford.

Hyland estimated that the woman consumed from a collection of 10 to 15 mushrooms and that eating a large quantity played a significant role in her death...

"They usually show up in the fall," said Halling, a Yonkers resident who is curator of mycology at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. "It's early in the season for this type, but things have been strange this year."

Halling said he was confident that the sample mushroom was dangerous, without doing chemical tests to be sure.

"At this moment I'm not sure which one it is," he said after a visual inspection. "It looks like it is one of the ones that's fatal..."

Halling said the deadly types are prevalent throughout the Northeast...

"One cannot assume that because all mushrooms are 'natural,' they are therefore all edible," said Dianna Smith, vice president of the Connecticut-Westchester Mycological Association. "A relatively few mushrooms will kill a person, but those are the ones we should know best. They include the Destroying Angel and the Death Cap - both beautiful, but deadly. We should also learn to distinguish them from any look-alikes. When in doubt - throw it out..."
Anyone who collects wild mushrooms for any reason, or who has even considered consuming what they've found, please repeat that lifesaving couplet uttered by Dianne Smith right now. Repeat it until it's burned into your brain. The first lesson any mushroom enthusiast should learn is precisely that. Eating a mushroom without certainty of its identity is a lot like diving headfirst into a pit filled with live snakes without knowing if there's a cobra in there.

Amatoxin poisoning is a horrible way to die. My heart goes out to the people who knew and loved Zoila Tapia. I hope that her suffering will at least prevent someone else from making the same sort of terrible mistake that claimed her life.

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