My doctor called: “Your blood test for West Nile virus came back positive,” he said.
I said, “You’re kidding.” What are the odds? A tropical virus, contracted here, at this temperate latitude?
The previous day, my colleague Lena Sun had reported that 2012 was on track to be the worst West Nile year yet in the United States. The irony was obvious: I was a science reporter with enough bad luck to land in the middle of a developing story. And in the middle of the hottest U.S. year on record. Later, I discovered, experts have long said that mild winters, extreme droughts and heat waves provide ideal conditions for the spread of West Nile virus. Sound familiar?
By the time I got my diagnosis, I had spent eight broiling weeks wondering what was wrong with me. Now I knew: An infected mosquito had struck, most likely in Washington.
The fever hit July 8 during a brief trip to see my parents in Wisconsin. (I had not been in the state long enough to have contracted the virus there.) Eating breakfast outside, the friendly sun suddenly turned menacing, pouring fire on my skin. My body tingled, my head lightened, my neck tightened. I stopped eating. Twenty minutes later, I was flopping in bed, soaking the sheets. My fever spiked to 102 before Tylenol brought it down.
After arriving back in Washington, I figured a few days’ rest would set me straight. I would chalk up the episode to the vagaries of life and move on.
But it persisted, this fatigue, this never-ending hot flash.
I fired my first doctor. “Are you in a hot place?” he asked when I told him I felt warm all the time.
Yes, I’m in a hot place, Doc. It’s called Washington, D.C., summer of 2012.
On my third and final visit, he pounded my abdomen for some reason, asked if I was “potent” (yes, thanks) and said all my blood tests were normal. “What do you want me to do?” he asked.
As Washington sweltered, I burned. My body temperature read normal, but my senses screamed “fever.”
I worked when I could, but my productivity plummeted. As I sat in my cubicle, my head would sometimes kind of float up toward the ceiling as the gaudy chartreuse accent wall blared at my hypersensitive optic nerves.
I trundled through the commute. Home. Walk. Train. Walk. Office. Elevator. Sit. Type. I felt disembodied, as if on drugs. But there are no drugs to treat what I had.
I was a West Nile zombie.
It was as if the fever had rung my noggin like a bell, and weeks later it still reverberated at some dissonant frequency.
Sleep grabbed hold in shifts of 12 and 14 hours, or oddly, never arrived at all. I nixed biking, hiking, camping, sailing, barbecuing and, saddest of all, beering. Life contracted. I turned into a cranky hermit, yelling “Human! Human! Human!” at the robotic voice of my health insurer when I called with a question. (Here’s where you can safely assume my dealings with our fragmented health-care mess have been a tedious, exhausting nightmare within a nightmare.)