To earn money over the summer, Virginia teen Alex Childress took on a job landscaping properties near his hometown. Last Tuesday, while trimming weeds and bushes in Fredericksburg, he came into contact with a tall plant that left him hospitalized with second- and third-degree burns on his face and arm, Buzzfeed News reports.
The plant, a giant hogweed, is a noxious weed that can grow up to 15 feet tall, with leaves up to five feet wide, and looks similar to elderberry and cow parsnip. When exposed to the skin, its sap can lead to severe skin and eye irritation, blistering, permanent scarring and even blindness, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Even scarier, the sap can easily transfer onto the skin if you brush up against the plant or break the stem or leaves.
Alex did not know he was dealing with a giant hogweed that day. "I clipped down a tall weed, and it brushed against my face, but I just carried it off, and I didn't think much of it because that happens all the time," he told Buzzfeed News.
He assumed the irritation was a sunburn, since he had been outside all day, wearing a hat and a sleeveless shirt. But when he got home, he realized the situation was much more serious.
"When I went to take a shower, the hot water hit my face, and the skin started peeling off," he said. After he and his mom saw "large portions and chunks" of his skin coming off, his mom brought him a picture a giant hogweed. That's when he recognized the dangerous plant he had encountered.
Alex was then hospitalized, where he spent the next three days in the burn unit. According to toxicology reports, his burns were indeed caused by the tall plant. He told Buzzfeed News, "At the hospital, they had me shower for an hour-and-a-half to rinse my body and get the pH levels down so they could treat my burns."
Afterward, his dead skin and blisters were removed, and then doctors put creams and ointments on his skin, and wrapped his burns in bandages.
As for how he's doing, he told Buzzfeed News, "Recovery is going good. My face is still peeling and a large section of my arm is going to peel soon … They said the wounds should heal in a month or two, but I have to stay out of the sun for up to six months to a year."
Unfortunately, his healing may affect his plans for next school year. Alex was given an ROTC scholarship to attend Virginia Tech in the fall, but he told Buzzfeed News it's possible he might have the scholarship revoked since he won't be able to be out in the sun or outside.
To help with his medical bills, supplement loss of income from not being able to work for the time being, and help with college supplies, Alex and his family set up a GoFundMe campaign.
According to a press release from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the presence of giant hogweed in the state was already confirmed in one location last month—in Clarke County, less than two hours away from where Alex had been working. The weed was intentionally planted by a homeowner for "ornamental purposes."
If you get into contact with giant hogweed, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation offers advice, including that you "wash the affected area thoroughly with soap and cold water as soon as possible" and "keep the exposed area away from sunlight for 48 hours."