Water Road Wednesday: The Neldathi of Kentucky?

I have a list of topics for these Water Road Wednesday posts. I sat down last December and wracked my brain to come up with everything I could talk about without going too far into what actually happens in the books. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d wind up with a post about the blue people of Kentucky.

Although the story began much earlier, it came to the attention of doctors in 1975 when a child in the hospital was being treated based on the blue color of his skin (“as Blue as Lake Louise”). Then, as:

a transfusion was being readied, the baby’s grandmother suggested to doctors that he looked like the ‘blue Fugates of Troublesome Creek.’ Relatives described the boy’s great-grandmother Luna Fugate as ‘blue all over,’ and ‘the bluest woman I ever saw.’

Turns out, genes were to blame:

The Fugate progeny had a genetic condition called methemoglobinemia, which was passed down through a recessive gene and blossomed through intermarriage.

* * *

Methemoglobinemia is a blood disorder in which an abnormal amount of methemoglobin — a form of hemoglobin — is produced, according to the National Institutes for Health. Hemoglobin is responsible for distributing oxygen to the body and without oxygen, the heart, brain and muscles can die.

In methemoglobinemia, the hemoglobin is unable to carry oxygen and it also makes it difficult for unaffected hemoglobin to release oxygen effectively to body tissues. Patients’ lips are purple, the skin looks blue and the blood is “chocolate colored” because it is not oxygenated . . ..

According to family tradition, Martin Fugate came to the area, in all his bluishness, in 1820. There he married a woman who carried a recessive gene for the condition. Four of their seven children were blue. Other families in the area showed signs of the condition, too, with one group being described as “bluer’n hell.” The Fugate family began to move away in the early 20th Century, as coal mining picked up in the area.

Although it’s a genetic condition (exacerbated by inbreeding), it can also be caused by exposure to certain chemicals. It’s one of those conditions that’s so rare no doctor ever sees it, but they all learn about it medical school.

Did the Fugates and their like really look like the Neldathi of The Water Road universe? Doubtful. But it’s kind of interesting that a clan-based group of mountain dwellers I pulled out of my imagination have a kind of real world equivalent. Truth, as they say, is never a match for fiction.


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