Since the Swamp Thing comic books first debuted as a standalone series in 1972, the monster and its origin story has evolved. Dr. Alec Holland, a brilliant scientist, invents a plant-growth formula with the potential to end world hunger. While working in his secret laboratory on a Louisiana bayou, the head of a criminal organization sends out his henchmen to acquire the formula. When he refuses to sell it, they knock Holland out and blow up the lab. A burning Holland, drenched in his formula, jumps into the swamp to douse the flames, and as he dies, his cells, memories, and consciousness merge with the plant life in the swamp.
Holland’s persona survives as a green, deformed, plant-covered creature with a special power— he can spontaneously construct a new body for himself out of any living plant. He uses this, and other powers, to protect the environment and humanity.
“Swamp Thing believes he’s this scientist named Alec Holland,” Michael said recently, “but, in reality, he’s just a collection of plants who believe they are Alec Holland. He’s not even human at all.”
“It was a story that resonated with me,” he continued. “Even though a lot of people see him as a monster or a freak, he’s really a good guy. And he tries to do what’s right.”
In many ways, Holland was an interesting character for Michael to latch on to, given that Bartonella was the monstrous driver behind—or, at least, might have been an accomplice in— his own transformation into Swamp Thing. Bartonella henselae belongs to the Alphaproteobacteria class of bacteria, a class of Proteobacteria named after a Greek god of the sea, Proteus, who is known for his ability to assume many different shapes. They are versatile shapeshifters, able to live within a diversity of animals, including cats, dogs, dolphins, horses, river otters, sea turtles, sheep, whales, and humans. They also have the power to change their hosts, too: Many other Bartonella species cause monstrous symptoms in humans, such as the “madness” caused by trench fever (Bartonella quintana), which is spread by lice, or the life-threatening fever and severe anemia caused by Carrion’s disease (Bartonella bacilliformis), which is transmitted by sandflies.
From an evolutionary perspective, Bartonella henselae bacteria have the same basic objective as our species—or, arguably, any species: to successfully pass DNA on to the next generation. Until recently, Bartonella henselae’s winning strategy was to live symbiotically within cats. Most often, these bacteria cause no serious disease in felines, as they lay in wait for a chance to move to other cats.
But as humans began moving from rural areas to cities, they also brought their cats—and fleas, and Bartonella henselae— indoors. Humans are essentially collateral damage in the bacteria’s pursuit of new hosts. Michael was one of them.
In the end, no one can say with 100-percent certainty that Bartonella caused Michael’s psychosis. The dozen or so medical specialists who conducted examinations of him could’ve missed something. There could’ve been some other undetected bacteria or virus in his body that contributed to his brain inflammation, or to his other physical symptoms. As with all microbes both under-studied and undiscovered, we simply can’t know.
What we do know is that Michael was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, multiple times—and that he fell through the cracks because what seemed like the obvious answer wasn’t the right one. With the discovery of antibiotics in 1928, a medical hubris set in, a firmly held belief that the war on bacteria was won and done. If Michael’s case proves anything, it’s how far that is from the truth. Breitschwerdt often tells classrooms full of young veterinarians and physicians, “It’s estimated that fewer than five percent of known bacterial organisms have been isolated using contemporary bacteriologic methods.” How many of those microbial predators might be to blame for the countless medical mysteries we still face today? Only time, and more research, can tell.
While there are very few published studies on Bartonella henselae, Michael’s doctors believe there is enough clinical evidence to say there is a high likelihood that it was the root cause of his psychosis. But in some ways, it’s irrelevant.
Because whether or not Bartonella was the root cause of Michael’s psychosis, it was only after testing him for it and treating him for it that the miraculous happened—the thing his family had been hoping and fighting for: He got better.