Wild fungus dish left hikers near death

A married couple thought the mushrooms they picked for dinner while hiking were safe, but they were among the most poisonous found in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 April, 2013, 4:21am


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Tony Wu Tung-ping and wife Wong Ngan-lin were a fit and healthy couple. He could finish a marathon in less than four hours and she enjoyed hiking with him every weekend.

But after a hike this month, the 48-year-old pair were told they might have just three days left to live.

Accustomed to gathering wild mushrooms during their hikes to cook for dinner later, they had picked about three catties of an attractive white mushroom which they later braised with chicken. "I did not suspect they might have problems," Wu said. "They were so fragrant, and smelled a bit better than those sold in supermarkets."

Within a few hours, both were fighting for their lives as doctors desperately sought new livers for them.

The innocent-looking mushrooms they had gathered were Amanita farinosa, one of the most deadly species in Hong Kong - just one or two small pieces, a poisons expert says - can kill.

Unlike many other wild mushrooms which cause gastro-intestinal upsets, these ones attack the liver.

It was the first recorded poisoning from this type of mushroom in Hong Kong.

The pair survived - Wong with a transplant and Wu with treatment - but they learned a deadly lesson.

I had heard news about mushroom poisoning once before, but the symptoms seemed mild … I thought it was a healthy lifestyle to eat things straight from nature

"I had heard news about mushroom poisoning once before, but the symptoms seemed mild … I thought it was a healthy lifestyle to eat things straight from nature," said Wu, adding he now regarded himself as stupid. "I respect nature more now, with a little fear."

The couple, born in Hubei province but long-term Hong Kong residents, set out from their home in Sha Tin on April 3, planning to hike through the Shing Mun Country Park to Tsuen Wan.

Near the Shing Mun Reservoir, they spotted a species they had never come across before, that appeared longer and whiter than others they had seen.

Wong, an experienced mushroom eater and student of traditional Chinese medicine, thought they were safe. Wu said he had confidence in her and they cooked them for dinner.

Next morning, Wong started to vomit vigorously, following by diarrhoea and exhaustion. The same trouble hit her husband shortly afterwards and they were admitted to a nearby hospital.

On April 6, without prior notice, they were transferred to Queen Mary Hospital in Pok Fu Lam for liver transplants.

"The doctors said we had only three days left, that we needed liver transplants. My brain suddenly went blank," said Wu, a popular teacher at TWGHS Yow Kam Yuen College in Sha Tin since 1994, who has finished five marathon runs in four years.

An online campaign for livers was launched almost immediately, spearheaded by Wu's colleagues and two sons aged 17 and 23. Good news came on April 8, when a liver from a man who had died the day before became available for Wong, who by then was in a much more serious condition than her husband.

"We were so lucky. My wife couldn't wait even one day longer," Wu said.

Liver transplant consultant Dr Kenneth Chok Siu-ho said getting a liver so promptly with a matching blood type was "even harder than winning the Mark Six lottery".

The city's first mushroom poisoning-related liver transplant was conducted the same day, taking 10 hours and saving Wong's life.

Wu recovered well over the following two days and the hospital said he did not need a transplant.

Dr Rick Lau Fei-lung, director of the Poison Information Centre, said it was stunned to see both of them survive, as the Amanita genus can kill up to half the people who ingest a significant amount.

"They were lucky. It was the first case of this kind of mushroom poisoning, and it was diagnosed correctly, and there was a liver," Lau said.

Wu said he had been moved by seeing more than 10 people volunteer to donate part of their livers. "A female alumnus whom I taught in the mid-90s grabbed my arm tightly, saying: 'Don't worry, I came to donate my liver.' Another alumnus took four days off just to get ready to offer his organ.

"There were so many people willing to help us in a selfless way," Wu said, adding she was completely surprised by people's generosity.

Wong was discharged on April 17, while his wife, 11 days after the surgery, expects to be discharged soon.