Lidgerwood woman recounts West Nile virus ordeal

Daily NewsJuly 12, 2014 

— A backyard spray can of Off sat beside Rick Whittier on the patio of his Lidgerwood home on a recent Wednesday morning. He and his wife, Connie, love spending time outside during the summer, but feel trapped to their own backyard after Connie suffered a severe bout of West Nile virus last year.

Rick keeps the backyard as mosquito-free as he can get it, but when they step off their lawn the two are inundated with mosquitoes that are beyond his eradication attempts at home. Mosquitoes are an annual pest for North Dakota communities like Lidgerwood. This city has a high occurrence of mosquitoes because it is surrounded by water, much of it stagnant, that allows the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes.

"If you go out for a walk and get on the street, it feels like they will carry you off. There are just so many of them," Connie told the Daily News (http://bit.ly/1qO6jpz ).

Rick shook his head and pointed at his wife. "Trust me, if she sees a mosquito, she makes a run for the house."

And who can blame Connie after she was hospitalized with West Nile virus. At 53, Connie is not of an age that typically has issues with West Nile. Doctors told the Whittiers she must have had an underlying illness to be struck with such a severe bout. Connie figures it was a sinus infection that was the culprit in her case.

According to information from the state Health Department, up to 80 percent of people infected with West Nile never develop any symptoms. One in five develop a fever with other symptoms such as headache, body aches, joint pain, vomiting or diarrhea. Less than 1 percent develop a serious neurologic illness such as encephalitis or meningitis. And 10 percent of people die who develop neurologic infections due to West Nile.

Connie was close to death, Rick said. Doctors who treated her last year approached him and said, "if it is West Nile, as bad as she is, it could be fatal."

"That is totally unbelievable. You can understand that kind of thing if she has a heart attack or it's something genetic. But to be just sitting in your backyard and just enjoying the outdoors, that doesn't make sense. You can't be safe in your own backyard anymore," Rick said.

Connie had the first confirmed case of West Nile in Richland County last year. Two other county residents reportedly died of the virus last year, according to the Health Department.

The Whittiers are taking every precaution they can this summer to be West Nile-free. They are watching the birds in their backyard, which in hindsight they said was an obvious symptom that West Nile was active in their neighborhood. Rick and Connie said they picked up to three or four dead birds in their yard daily. Now Rick sprays the grass weekly and when they go fishing, Connie bug spray that contains 100 percent DEET from head to toe. Rick said she's practically dripping in DEET to prevent any mosquito attacks.

She has ongoing health issues now that doctors can't explain. Doctors can't say they are attributable to West Nile virus, but Connie said she didn't have any of these health issues before last summer. Connie develops fevers about every three months, and she can just suddenly fall down. Her memory has also been affected and both Rick and Connie said she talks slower. Sometimes she really has to think about the words before speaking them, Connie said.

West Nile virus is most commonly spread by infected mosquitoes. The virus is maintained in a transmission cycle involving one or more species of mosquitoes and birds. It is transmitted to people, horses and other domestic animals through the bite of a mosquito infected with West Nile virus. In North Dakota, Culex tarsalis is the most important type in transmitting the virus to humans.

West Nile virus transmission has been documented in Europe and the Middle East, Africa, India, parts of Asia and Australia. It was first detected in North America in 1999, and has since spread across the continental United States and Canada. West Nile virus was first detected in North Dakota in 2002.

The symptoms of neurologic illness can include headache, high fever, neck stiffness, disorientation, coma, tremors, seizures or paralysis. Connie had the severe headache, high fever, disorientation and tremors. She doesn't remember much of her hospital stay, just bits and pieces where she was cognizant enough to answer questions posed by health care workers. She didn't know her husband or son, but did know the name of their dog.

The virus took effect quickly. She went from a fever of about 101 degrees for a few days, to an emergency trip to St. Francis Healthcare Campus in Breckenridge, Minnesota, when Rick had a nagging feeling that something wasn't quite right. He said he couldn't really get her to respond and woke her repeatedly. At 11:30 p.m. one evening he woke her again. "Please just talk to me," Rick said. Connie seemed dazed and responded she didn't want to go to the doctor, but he got her into the car after saying he was hungry and wanted to go to McDonald's.

On the way to Breckenridge, Rick said, Connie started to scream that her head hurt. That is when the fog took over for Connie.

"She could process some things," he said with a shake of his head. But not others. At home Connie said she couldn't go because she couldn't find her bra. He pointed at her bra sitting on the end of the bed. She said, right, "but I can't find my bra." Then at Breckenridge, Connie tapped the front of her shin and said that was where her shoulder hurt.

A nurse at Breckenridge was the first to put the West Nile virus clues together. After six hours at Breckenridge, she was transferred to Sanford Health in Fargo. Two spinal taps were done, but it takes three days to verify West Nile so the doctors treated the symptoms. Once West Nile was confirmed, they pulled the IVs and said the rest was up to Connie.

Recovery from this severe disease may take several weeks or months, and some of the neurologic effects may be permanent.

Today the Whittiers want their story known so others can take the steps necessary to protect themselves from West Nile. And they want more efforts locally to spray mosquitoes with a killing dose of chemical, not just chemicals that provide a deterrence. Rick said the state should send money to "hot zones," counties that typically have issues with West Nile to eradicate the mosquitoes so the West Nile virus can't build up. Richland County is one such county.

"The state needs to target these counties to cure the problem," he said.

Information from: Wahpeton Daily News, http://www.wahpetondailynews.com

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