My Bout With West Nile Virus
I awoke at just after three in the morning on Thursday, the 27th of September in pain. It was pain so extreme that it was the pain that had waked me from my sleep. Waking from a dream I cannot even remotely recall, I awoke to the pounding, crushing, burning sensation of my head being placed in a vise and having it casually crushed by some master torturer. I cannot recall anything so dreadfully unpleasant in my life except to compare it to a concussion after getting thrown off a horse when I was sixteen years old.
I literally rolled out of my bed onto the floor, trying not to cry out loud. I crawled on my hands and knees until I could reach the dresser to pull myself up onto my feet. From there, I staggered along the edge of my wife’s side of the bed and made it to the bathroom. I don’t know if it was the right thing to do, but something in my mind screamed, “Get into the shower and run the water as hot as you can stand it.” I obeyed that voice.
By the time the water was getting hot, I was already physically crying tears of pain and whimpering from the sensation of having my head crushed under this intolerable weight. I cannot recall ever hurting this much with the possible exception of that first concussion (I have had three for sure, maybe four in my life.)
While I have not verified it through blood testing, all my symptoms over the next week and a half fit the description of West Nile Virus (Encephalitis). Encephalitis is when the tissue of the brain swells and the cranium acts like a clamp to the brain. The brain is literally swelling up and the cranium can no longer properly encase the brain. This pressure apparently is translated as pain in the skull, even though the brain itself has no nerve endings of any kind, nor can it feel any sensations.
This all-encompassing sensation of having my head crushed lasted for about three hours. I think it was the worst three hours in my entire life. After that, for the next eight and a half days, my head simply felt like there was a crew of two, continuously hammering away at my skull, non-stop, with the timing of a jack and hammer team in a mine.
As you read this and wonder, “How in the hell can anyone stand that?” I would like to inform you that there’s more. Along with this intense headache, I lost most of my inner ear balance. There was a ringing sensation in my ears that spanned at least five distinct pitches, mixed together into a cacophony that made it hard to hear. This is not counting the fact that as far as sound went, it seemed like everything was muffled like my head was under water.
My motor control and nerve functions for my limbs were also severely affected. Light sensitivity (where the presence of too much light – in this case, most any amount of light – sends physical sensations of pain to the head) would be an understatement in this context. My sinus cavities, my chest and lungs all started filling up with congestive fluids within a few hours of the onset of this disease.
Along with all this, I had a strong, throbbing pain in my neck, which was also quite stiff and difficult to hold steady. I couldn’t walk without holding a hand to the wall. I had to force myself to eat in order to keep the body fed and going. Even so, the food tasted like nothing and the textures were all wrong.
This only added to my sense of nausea and dizziness, making the likelihood of my food coming right back up very strong; food that I really didn’t feel like having in the first place. I shuffled along, taking little tiny steps like a wizened old man in his twilight days. My balance was so bad and the nausea so strong that I only really wished to lie down and sleep it all off.
I sweated every moment of every day for the next eleven days from that morning. I sweated so much that, even though I was drinking two quarts of water a day, plus hot tea laced with extra vitamins, I rarely had to go to the bathroom. I was losing so much fluid in sweating alone that I couldn’t urinate. My bowels had begun to shut down and stop working and I didn’t defecate for five days. Fortunately, I ate so little in this time that this wasn’t really an issue.
It does sound pretty bad, doesn’t it? Now, as I write this, I am twelve days into dealing with West Nile Virus and am feeling much improved. I am as weak as a newborn kitten. I can walk to the end of my drive and I am tired. By the time I get back to my porch, I literally crawl up the four shallow steps, turn around and allow myself to collapse onto my back and lie there, breathing deeply and waiting for the dizziness to pass. (*1)
I shuffled around the house, most of my time being spent laying down on the bed, fading into and out of sleep – or maybe consciousness. A sleep that was fraught with dreams of greatly disturbing images, even though nothing seriously terrifying or even truly bizarre (as dreams go) occurred in my dream state. I didn’t feel refreshed or rested and have not had a good night’s sleep in all this time. I am exhausted from my dreams and worn down by the effort of moving through the day. I am dizzy even if I just move my head too quickly. It doesn’t take much.
Now the ringing in my ears has gone down (I imagine that this is in keeping with the relative reduction in swelling of my brain) to a level that is just slightly noisier than before this whole thing started. I can still hear it, but it’s reduced to maybe two pitches and the internal volume is like that of a muted radio coming from another room, instead of blaring into my head like a megaphone just outside my ear. To say that I am relieved would not do the sensation justice.
On day eight, my neck pain and stiffness began to subside (I think this was also along with the reduction in the swelling of my brain.) My nasal passages and upper sinus cavities began to clear without requiring decongestants and antihistamine pills. I actually felt hungry. I wanted to eat something. So I did.
You know, there’s nothing really special about your average ham sandwich, but the one I made that day was just about the best damn sandwich I think I ever ate. I could taste food! I wanted food! It’s hard to describe how amazingly happy you can get over such simple things as not hurting, being able to smell and not being dizzy each time you move your head – or enjoying a simple ham sandwich with mayonnaise and mustard, some provolone cheese and whole grain wheat bread. It was heavenly.
I know what you’re thinking: “Why in the name of all that’s rational and logical didn’t I go to the doctor?” Well, honestly, the first day I was sick, I actually started a new job, working at my neighbor’s Pecan Grove Plantation and didn’t want to not show up, even though I was sick as can be. I suffered through the morning to lunchtime, made it back home and came back half an hour later than I should have, called my neighbor and told him I really needed to go home.
The next day, I worked the whole day, just doing my level best to shore up and bear up under the difficulty of working at a conveyor belt sorting pecans with no sense of balance, poor motor control and difficulty maintaining my upright position. Watching the conveyor didn’t help. The belts induced sensations of vertigo in the same way someone gets car sick, while I snapped up pecans, moved ones that weren’t out of their husks along and peeled back others that just needed a little ‘encouragement’ to be ready for sorting.
The next day was Saturday. This was not a day off. I showed up for work at seven in the morning and worked straight through at the sorter until eight thirty. At that point we were told that we had to go hand pick pecans to get them out of the wet, because it had rained the night before. I spent the time from nine in the morning until two in the afternoon, wearing my galoshes over my work shoes, grubbing through cold, wet, muddy ground and detritus for pecans out of their husks.
By this time, I was simply done. I could barely lift my feet. I was so tired that I couldn’t stand steadily. There were several moments during my pecan picking time where I looked at the wet, muddy ground and thought, “You know, it doesn’t look half bad. Maybe I’ll just lay down and pass out here.” Somehow I managed to get through that. I picked up something close to seventy pounds of pecans on my first and only (so far) pecan picking expedition for pay.
The following nine days from then I have been unable to work. I just couldn’t function. That day in the field was the final straw for my last reserves and I have been pretty much house bound since. By this time, I was pretty sure that I had contracted West Nile Virus and going to the doctor was just going to be an expense I couldn’t afford.
That sounds stupid, doesn’t it? It’s not really, though. Let me break it down for you. West Nile Fever is transmitted from mosquitoes. Only one in five people who are bitten by an infected mosquito even show any symptoms of any kind. In the case of symptomatic patients, a mild to high fever, with all the attendant aches and joint pain of a mild to strong strain of influenza ensues. This fever can last anywhere from a few days to several weeks.
In the symptomatic cases, only on in twelve or so show greater signs of infection. These greater signs produce much stronger symptoms and different symptoms that indicate viral infection. So, we’re talking only something like 13% of all symptomatic cases even have more than West Nile Fever. These higher infection cases are called West Nile Virus.
West Nile Virus has three primary forms. One causes encephalitis (swelling of the brain tissue,) and that is what it appears I had. The other, more dangerous, form causes meningitis (that’s swelling of the membrane around the brain and spinal chord) and is, from all accounts, even more unpleasant than what I had. There is a third form, which seems incredibly rare on the whole, which causes myelitis, which affects the brain stem and makes it swell, as well as the sheathing surrounding the nerves for motor functions.
“None of this is answering the question, ‘Why didn’t you see a damn doctor, you freaking moron?’” You must be thinking that by now. Because, there is no cure, no vaccine or any other form of action the doctors can take other than to administer fluids intravenously, administer pain medication as a palliative and keep an eye on you in a hospital bed. Sorry. Not up for that. I can feel very shitty and uncomfortable a lot better at home than I can in a hospital – plus it’s a helluva lot cheaper, to boot.
It’s not all bad news, though. People are all worried about this deadly, worrisome disease and I have to point out some facts to you. The worst outbreak of WNF (that’s the Fever form) and WNV has been this year, in the United States with 1,108 cases reported. There have been 14 deaths attributed to WNV this year. The deaths in the US that occurred from this outbreak as of August of 2012 have primarily been to people over the age of fifty. 50% of the deaths have occurred in cases of WNV (that’s encephalitic or meningial forms) where the patient was over 70 years of age.
Remember, there’s no vaccine you can take to prevent it. Remember, there’s no cure once you get it. Remember that this number of cases is only reported cases, because 80% of the people have no symptoms and so most likely don’t report it, having the antibodies discovered in blood tests during routine checkups and physicals.
The number of worldwide cases of WNV (the one you could die from) is less than 1% of the total number of people that die every year in the US alone from regular outbreaks of influenza. The number of people that die from WNV is approximately 12% of all cases of WNV infection; meaning about three in a thousand infected people are likely to die from it. In almost all incidents, those who die are likely to be males over the age of fifty, with a preponderance of those who die (over 50%) being over age 70.
In other words, you stand about two thousand times greater chance of dying from the flu than you do of WNF infection. So why worry? I wasn’t. I mean; I wasn’t until I got it. But in my research, I found out a lot of things about it and realized that while I was unfortunate to be in the primary contraction group of males over fifty, my odds of survival were still pretty darn good.
I am a ‘Glass is Half Full’ kind of guy. I figure it like this. No vaccine, no cure, no big deal of infection in the first place and the odds of dying are only slightly better than winning a Lottery Scratch Off Ticket when you are infected. Me? I simply dodged one more bullet in a long line of accidents, events, sickness, disasters and Acts of God. Sounds about right. I’m a pretty lucky guy for all the things I’ve been through.
Yeah, I’m still here. Weak and dizzy. Easily tired and not much energy. Sure, I had a close call – again. The best part, though, is I now have one more thing in my experiential memory that I can write and relate to others. Until the day comes when there are no more days to come for me, I am still here. In the meantime, I will continue to do my best to dodge the bullets Life, the Universe and Everything sends my way – and regale you with my tales of daring do and luck after the fact.
If you’re still worried, here’re some things you can do to minimize your chances of being stuck by mosquitoes – and possibly standing in line for West Nile. Empty out your large basins of water that could breed more mosquitoes, like large puddles (fill them in) or birdbaths, buckets, barrels and other things that can hold standing water. Spray yourself when you go out for long periods of time with something to keep those pesky blood-sucking bitches off you (it’s a fact that only the female mosquito bites and feeds on blood.) Avoid staying out for prolonged periods between dusk and dawn (the period of time when mosquitoes are most active.) Don’t worry too much, either. Stress is a higher risk factor in death than WNV, so you don’t want to increase your odds should you be like me and show symptoms for West Nile Fever.
As a last cautionary note, I would encourage those of you who do suddenly discover that your head is in a vise, your neck radiates a dull pain and is stiff, your balance is off and there’s a strong ringing in your ears to go see a doctor – you know just in case – because not everyone should be as stupidly lucky as I am when it comes to dodging bullets. Let my tale be the one that convinces you not to worry before it’s time to worry and nothing more.
[Author’s Note: I wrote this on the 9th of October. Since that time, I have had cyclic periods where my symptoms of dizziness, nausea, ear ringing and lack of balance, energy or strength have recurred. At the time of this note, it is the 12 of November. I have been feeling mostly myself for about a week now and my last recurrence of symptoms, which included trembling hands and feet, poor motor control like a stiff marionette and a pounding head having occurred about ten days ago.
Take heart all you hypochondriacs, germophobes and worry warts: it’s not easy to catch and if you follow my suggestions, you’re extremely unlikely to even be bitten. As an added bonus, the younger you are, the higher your chances of not having extreme symptoms. If you’re female, you’re treated with even better odds than for males. Those of you over fifty and male, you should at least take precursory prevention by getting rid of that standing water anywhere nearby and spray before you work or play outside.]