The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says this year is the
worst summer for West Nile
virus since the disease arrived in the United States, probably in 1999. If so, my tale is a cautionary one.
A week after being bit by that mosquito, I was at a cooking conference in Vermont, working 10-hour days cutting vegetables, joking around the kitchen, making new friends. The third day, I woke with a fever and ached deeply in my bones. I figured it was a bizarrely ferocious flu.
Two days later, I had a temperature of 104, was losing the ability to walk and suddenly realized that I could not move my left arm. The friends who drove me to the hospital had to all but carry me into the emergency room. Within two hours, I had been X-rayed, CT-scanned, MRI’ed, and spinal-tapped. The tests showed extremely high white blood cell counts. There were lesions on my spinal cord, and the virus had caused my brain to swell: I had encephalitis.
As the doctors theorized about Lyme disease or a rampant herpes virus, I remembered that vicious bite of 10 days earlier and placed my bet that it was West Nile. Sure enough, there were West Nile antibodies in my spinal fluid, and the doctors put me on a serious regimen of steroids and antibiotics. Within a few days, both arms were flaccid and my legs began to fail me.
My wife and friends were at my side, but I recall little of those first days other than being stunned by this new life situation. I’d had sports injuries in the past but had never been in a hospital, rarely visited doctors and secretly applauded myself on my innate good health. Now, I could barely move. I was a spry 47 year old and could barely move. Adding to that, the medical community seemed to share the same sense of bewilderment I felt. There was no regimen of pills, no shot, no miracle cure.
The nurses became my heroes. I lived in a new world of urinals and wheelchairs, sleeplessness and a slide into more paralysis. All I had to rely on to deal with my new condition was my sense of humor and truisms that my father had cheerfully passed on to me and my siblings from his Kansas childhood during the Depresssion: “Nobody ever said life was fair” and “A little rain must fall.”
Doing me in
The virus, or my own immune system’s punch-drunk response — the doctors weren’t certain — was still killing nerve cells. Pain was rarely a big problem, but the illness was doing me in quietly and stealthily.