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Amherst mother and son had life-threatening liver damage after eating poisonous wild mushroom

Kam Look and Kai Chen became severely ill after mistakenly eating a death cap mushroom, which is highly poisonous.UMass Memorial Medical Center

An Amherst man was hospitalized and his mother needed a liver transplant after they mistakenly ate a highly poisonous mushroom they foraged from the wild, hospital officials said Thursday.

Kai Chen, 27, and his mother, Kam Look, 63, were both suffering from severe, life-threatening liver damage when they arrived at the hospital on Sept. 21, according to officials at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester.

What they thought was a brown cap mushroom turned out to be an Amanita phalloides, commonly known as a death cap mushroom, which if eaten can be lethal. In fact, the death rate for the type of Amanita-induced liver injury they sustained is between 30 and 50 percent, hospital officials said.

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Chen and Look, who live in Amherst and are originally from Malaysia, became ill soon after eating the mushroom. They initially went to Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton and were transferred to UMass because they needed a higher level of care.

Dr. Stephanie Carreiro, a toxicology expert, “knew that the patients didn’t have time to waste and started searching for Legalon, an investigational new drug that required special ‘compassionate use’ approval to use because there were no other therapies available,” hospital officials said in a statement.

The drug was flown in from Philadelphia and medical staff consulted with toxicology experts from around the country, hospital officials said.

Chen eventually recovered and was discharged a few days later. But his mother had to remain in the hospital and was placed on an organ donor transplant list due to the severity of her liver damage, officials said.

“Within just a few days, she received the liver she needed and a high-stakes surgery — requiring precision and courage — was performed to complete the transplant,” officials said.

Look spent several days intubated in the intensive care unit and was placed on an array of medications to keep her stable. She was eventually moved to an acute care floor and then to a rehabilitation facility, where she stayed until she was healthy enough to return home, hospital officials said.

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“Kam is now going home to rejoin her family with a major message of caution about mushrooms for others,” hospital officials said.

Chen and Look spoke to reporters at a news conference on Thursday. Chen said they wanted to share their experience as a “cautionary tale” because the wild mushroom they ate looked so similar to edible mushrooms.

“Be careful of what you find out there,” Chen said.





Emily Sweeney can be reached at emily.sweeney@globe.com. Follow her @emilysweeney and on Instagram @emilysweeney22.