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Flint Water Crisis

Legionnaires' Widow Wants Answers on Flint Water

Image: Terri Nelson sits in the living room of her home on Jan. 20, 2016 in Flushing, Mich.
Terri Nelson sits in the living room of her home on Jan. 20, 2016 in Flushing, Mich. Jake May / The Flint Journal / MLive.com

When Terri Nelson's husband contracted Legionnaires' disease over the summer, she thought it was just a terrible turn of luck.

Nearly six months after his death, she's wondering if it was something more sinister — a preventable tragedy stemming from the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

"I'm pretty angry," Nelson told NBC News on Thursday as she waited for answers from state bureaucrats who are investigating a possible link between the city water supply and two summertime outbreaks of Legionnaires'.

"I'd like someone to be accountable."

A Timeline of the Flint Water Crisis 1:46

The Michigan health department announced last week that there was a spike in Legionnaires', a severe type of pneumonia transmitted through inhaled water, in Genesee County in the summers of 2014 and 2015. All told, 87 cases were reported, and 10 of those patients died.

More than a dozen of those cases involved people who had been treated at McLaren Regional Medical Center in Flint, where Terri's husband, Dwayne, spent a night before he fell ill with Legionnaires', according to data from the health state department released Thursday.

Officials said they "cannot conclude" the increase in Legionnaires' cases was related to the water emergency in Flint, though independent researchers told NBC News there likely is a connection.

Documents obtained by the Flint Journal show that as far back as October 2014, county health officials met with city water officials to discuss a possible link between the water system and the disease.

Image: Flushing resident Terri Nelson looks through old pictures of her husband Dwayne Nelson
Flushing resident Terri Nelson looks through old pictures of her husband Dwayne Nelson, who died of Legionnaires' disease in August 2015 as she sits in her living room on Jan. 20, 2016 at her home in Flushing, Mich. Jake May / The Flint Journal / MLive.com

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency learned local officials were looking into a connection in March 2015, according to a memo from a water expert that was obtained by the ACLU last summer.

Months later, in March 2015, a supervisor for the state Department of Environmental Quality told the county it was "highly unlikely" the bacteria that causes the disease would be coming from the Flint water plant.

The water that flowed through the plant was from the Flint River, because in April 2014 — just a few months before the uptick in Legionnaires' — the city stopped using water from Detroit to save money.

Emails Related to Flint Water Crisis Released by Michigan Governor 2:38

The change to a saltier, more corrosive source unleashed a cascade of problems: water that looked and smelled funny; unsafe levels of e.coli bacteria and disinfectant byproducts; and finally, tests that showed toxic lead was leaching from pipes into the system.

The lead poisoning was already a full-blown crisis when Gov. Rick Snyder revealed on Jan. 13 that health authorities were investigating whether Legionnaires' was another, deadly, side effect of the disastrous water switch.

Nelson, who lives in Flushing, Michigan, said Snyder's announcement was the first inkling she had that the water emergency in nearby Flint might have put her husband of 38 years in an early grave.

An "easygoing" salesman and father of two, Dwayne Nelson, 63, was diagnosed last May with lung cancer. The prognosis wasn't great, but he weathered his first cycle of chemotherapy and radiation without too many problems and was waiting to find out how well it worked.

On July 25, he was admitted to McLaren Regional Medical Center for one night to fix a problem with a stent. Days later, on Saturday, Aug. 1, he was stricken so ill he couldn't get off the sofa and went back to McLaren.

His wife said she was initially told he had pneumonia. Midweek, doctors told her it was Legionnaires', and state health officials came to talk to her about where her husband had been. The answers were easy: home and hospital.

By that Friday, he was dead.

"He might have had a few more months if he hadn't gotten that Legionnaires'," she said. "It would have taken us through Christmas or maybe even to our anniversary — it would be 39 years tomorrow."

Why did Cher decide to help Flint? 0:52

When Dwayne died, Terri wasn't paying too much attention to the complaints about water in Flint. Her own tap water came from Detroit, and she assumed the hospital water would be safe.

But by the time Dwayne had been admitted to McLaren, which was getting its water from the Flint River, the state health department had already tallied 14 patients at the hospital who had come down with Legionnaires', according to the state's report.

Now, she wonders if the ice chips and sips of tap water that her husband had during that overnight stay in July contained bacteria that he aspirated during a coughing fit.

And she's questioning why a connection between Flint water and Legionnaires' wasn't made earlier and brought to the public's attention.

"They should have let people know," she said.