Many of this summer’s news headlines are focused on the discovery of mosquitoes carrying West Nile Virus, aerial spraying to help prevent it, and confirmed cases for those who contracted it. If you’re anything like me, you tend to read these stories and move on with your day without giving it much thought. You’ve been bitten a million times before, and the itching sucks but it’s no big deal… it won’t happen to you.
But it can, and the effects can be devastating. Most who will read this have already heard my story, but I’ve never really written it down, and figured now was as good a time as any to do so.
By the time I contracted West Nile, we had already learned (the hard way) that just when you think it can’t happen to you, it will. So this really shouldn’t have come as any surprise but it certainly caught us off guard. I was 31 weeks into my first normal, boring pregnancy (the first three tragically ended early) and we had just completed a three-day drive to Illinois where we were about to begin a new adventure. After a week of painting, unpacking, acclimating to the humidity, learning our way around, and growing a human, I was more exhausted than I had ever been in my whole life. I didn’t think much of it until one night at dinner when I couldn’t muster the energy to lift my soup spoon to my mouth. That night I went to sleep, and slept about 23 hours a day for five straight days. FIVE days.
Throughout that time, I became so sensitive to light, I had to spend most of my time in the basement. I had a fever, and the pain in my muscles and joints was so severe I was convulsing in my sleep… but since I was pregnant, the only thing I could take was Tylenol. I was also quickly losing my hearing and muscle function, leaving me unable to write, type, button my shirt, grasp a fork, or brush my hair without an incredible amount of effort. Since I had no appetite or energy to eat or drink, I could stay awake just long enough to take a bite or two of toast and a couple sips of Gatorade. I lost 10 pounds in those five days, bringing my total pregnancy weight gain down to a whopping nine pounds. I was so dehydrated, I was peeing brown gel. After the first few days, I was conscious a little more often, which only made me more aware of the pain. Showering was a process that took more than an hour because I could shakily wash my hair, before needing a 20-minute nap. Then I could wash my face and take another nap. Wash body; nap. Dry off; nap. Get dressed; nap.
Somewhere around Day 7 we were able to see my new OB, whom I’d already met once before (thank God!). I remember looking in the mirror that morning, shocked by my grey face and sunken features. I vaguely recall shuffling into the waiting room and registering the looks on other people’s faces. I literally looked like death and wanted to be embarrassed by it, but just didn’t have the energy. I nodded off once or twice while they extracted vials of blood to test for Lyme Disease, Mono, and West Nile. And the whole time, I was thinking, “Oh great… I’ve finally made it to the end of my first healthy pregnancy, and now we’re both going to die.”
A full two weeks later, the results came back as West Nile Virus.
By that time, the fever was gone, and I was awake a lot more. Most of the pain had subsided, but my hearing and muscle function weren’t back to normal. I remember being unable to lift a small pot of Noodle Roni off the stove, and I had to sit in the lobby during worship at church because while I couldn’t hear the person standing right next to me, loud noises were amplified a bazillion times. I managed to pass my Illinois driver’s license exam, but my photo bears my gaunt appearance, and it looks like a first grader signed my name. The doctor said she didn’t care what I ate as long as I consumed as many calories as possible because I’d never make it through labor if I didn’t. That proved to be easier said than done. I’d get a sudden craving for a cheeseburger, so we’d jump in the car and race through the Burger King drive-thru. But after two or three bites, I felt like I’d just inhaled a Thanksgiving feast and couldn’t eat another bite. By the time I was induced six weeks later, I had only gained back five of the pounds I’d lost (for a grand total of 14lbs.).
Little is known about the effects of WNV on unborn children, so it was no surprise that we were given several extra ultrasounds, and twice-weekly non-stress tests. We were also contacted by the CDC who asked us to be part of a study to help provide information for future cases. The doctors had to fill out reams of paperwork for the study, and collect blood and tissue samples from the umbilical cord and placenta. Once I was ready for an epidural, it took three hours to get one because the anesthesiologist had to consult the Infectious Disease doctors to make sure they wouldn’t accidentally re-infect me with my own virus. I pushed mightily for three hours before succumbing to exhaustion, but our Mounted Warrior was born safely via c-section – and was perfectly healthy and totally unaffected.
Looking back, we can see God’s provision and protection throughout the whole process. He gave my parents extra time to stay and help get us settled and support Ryan. He led us to the best doctors in town. He completely healed my body, and kept Ryder healthy.
So now, I can use my experience to urge my friends and loved ones to do whatever it takes to protect themselves from this terrible virus. For all I went through, I know of others who have suffered far worse than I did, even to the point of permanent paralysis, brain damage, or death. I know the newest trends involve living chemical-free, so I don’t care which methods you use… But don’t just sit back and assume it can’t happen to you. Use bug spray with DEET, run OFF! fans, burn citronella candles, apply essential oils, plant mosquito repelling plants… do whatever it takes to protect your family (including your pets!) from mosquito bites because you never know which one could change your life.
***Edited to answer a couple of questions I’ve been asked since I published this post.
a) There is no “cure” for WNV. It is a virus, and must simply run its course. Symptoms can be treated to relieve pain or remain hydrated, etc. but the only way to prevent contracting it is to be proactive about protecting yourself from being bitten by a mosquito.
b) Just because a person contracts WNV doesn’t necessarily guarantee they won’t get it again (kinda like chicken pox). However, Ryder and I were both tested, and it appears we are both immune.
c) The incubation period for WNV is between 4-14 days (this is the time it could take for symptoms to show up once you are bitten). Based upon this info, our best guess is that “the” mosquito came from Nebraska. We stopped there for the night on our drive out to IL, and there were bugs of every shape and size outside our motel when we were taking the dogs potty. I also remember flicking a mosquito out of my hand while sitting in the basement with the dogs while our furniture was being moved into our new house… so it could’ve been that night as well.
d) WNV is not contagious.