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Star teenage athlete dies after flu symptoms turn out to be plague

Poudre High School baseball player Taylor Gaes during a game. The 16-year-old died June 8 of plague, according to Larimer County Health Department spokeswomen Katie O’Donnell. (Dawn Gaes/the Coloradoan via AP)

A standout high school athlete in peak health died earlier this month after he contracted a rare strain of plague, according to Colorado health officials.

Authorities suspect Taylor Gaes, 16, contracted bubonic plague from fleas on a dead rodent or other animal on his family’s rural property near Fort Collins, Colo., according to the Coloradoan.

“We often talk about Taylor’s potential as an athlete, but he was much more than that,” Poudre varsity baseball coach Russell Haigh told the Denver Post. “He was a good friend to all of our players. He was a special young man.”

A Gofundme page for the Gaes family has raised more than $15,000.

At 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, Gaes was considered an excellent college baseball prospect, according to the Post. He was a varsity pitcher and starting first baseman at only 15, as well as a great hitter, the paper reported.

Haigh said the teenager had the potential for a “brilliant sports career.”

Gaes’s death remains troubling for those who knew him because of the speed of the teenager’s sudden demise. Health officials remain perplexed because he didn’t exhibit swollen lymph nodes, a characteristic marker of the illness that would have alerted officials sooner, Katie O’Donnell, a Larimer County Health Department spokeswoman, told the Los Angeles Times.

Instead, the Times reported, Gaes complained of fever and muscle aches — common flu symptoms.

O’Donnell told the Times that the plague is “very rare, which makes it hard to diagnose.”

“There is a small chance that others might have been bitten by infected fleas, so anyone who was on the family’s land in the last seven days should seek medical attention immediately if a fever occurs,” Larimer health officials said in a statement on Friday. “The last exposure to others was likely on June 14.”

An average of seven human plague cases are reported each year across the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During Bubonic plague, bacteria grow inside a person’s lymph nodes, according to the CDC. Septicemic plague occurs when plague bacteria multiply in the blood, the CDC states, and Pneumonic plague infects the lungs.

To reduce the chance of death, antibiotics must be given within 24 hours of the appearance of the first symptoms, the agency recommends.

A week before he died, Taylor was in superb health, his coach told the Post. But two days after first getting sick, Gaes’s condition worsened quickly. His family was forced to leave a Colorado Rockies game in the fifth inning because of his pain, according to USA Today.

His symptoms appeared to improve later that evening after his parents put heating pads on his back, but the next morning he woke up his parents to tell them he’d just coughed up blood, the paper reported.

Family members tried to rush him to the hospital 20 miles away, but it was too late. The teenager stopped breathing with five miles to go.

The Gaes family started a memorial fund in Taylor Gaes’s name to raise money to support young athletes for whom finances are a barrier to baseball.

“Taylor Gaes loved the game of baseball,” the fund states. “It was a passion that lived in every part of his life and person. The belief that any kid should have the opportunity to play the game of baseball was a passion of his. He never understood why money should play a factor in a young person’s ability to experience the joys of the game.”

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