A surgeon gets infected with West Nile virus and tells his story

Adapted from an interview from Me and My Doctor.

I will never be normal like I was before I got sick. I couldn’t run if it was an emergency. I cannot ride a bicycle, although I can sort of halfway dance with my wife. I can’t carry my grandchildren up the stairs.

I am never sick. I was a perfectly healthy surgeon, working 88.7 hours a week on average. I had missed only four days of work from illness in my 27 years of practice until a mosquito bit me seven years ago.  A few days later, on a Tuesday, I was unusually exhausted after performing a colon operation, so I went home and went to bed.

The next morning, I only had a low-grade fever, but I had terrible muscle aches all over. I felt like I was going to die. I thought that if I didn’t feel better soon, I would have to go to the emergency room. Fortunately, I starting feeling a little better, so I went to work and did several colonoscopies, after which I had to go home and go back to bed. I cancelled all my office patients for the next two days. I felt as though I was carrying a backpack with 1,000 pounds of bricks in it.

Despite feeling like I was going to die, I did not have any localizing symptoms — no sore throat, runny nose, cough, or diarrhea. Thursday morning, while making rounds in the hospital, I ran into one of my infectious disease colleagues in the hall. I told him how I felt and asked him if it could be West Nile virus. He said that it could but that I hadn’t had it enough days to be able to test for it. I told him I was supposed to fly to Indiana in two days to attend my daughter’s doctoral organ recital. He said, “Oh, go ahead. If you still feel bad when you get back, we’ll run some tests and see if that’s what you had.”

On Saturday, I flew to Indiana. By that time, I was sleeping 20 hours a day.  On the day of my daughter’s recital, a week from the onset of my disease, I slept all day, got dressed, videotaped the recital, and then went back to bed.  The following morning, I tried to get out of bed, only to discover that my legs were paralyzed.  My family took me to the emergency department. By that evening, I was in the intensive care unit (ICU). My legs were completely paralyzed; my arms were mostly paralyzed; I was sleeping 23 and a half hours a day. I could not talk. I could not hear. I could not write. I could not even turn over in bed. My legs cramped so badly that I required IV Dilaudid for pain control.

I spent four and a half weeks in ICU, then two months in an inpatient rehabilitation hospital, followed by one month of home care and three months of all-day outpatient rehab. I had to relearn how to walk, how to talk, and how to write.  I was out of work for seven months. When I first went back to work, I could see patients for only one hour before I had to go home, exhausted, and go back to bed. It took a year to be able to work 35 hours a week. Because of the residual leg weakness from the polio-like paralysis, I have to wear braces on both legs and therefore had to give up performing abdominal surgery.  Although it continues to improve very slowly, my stamina is far from normal. I was working 88.7 hours a week when I got sick; now I can only work 35 hours a week. I am happy to be alive, but my body will never be normal again.

The United States has seen a record outbreak of West Nile virus. North Texas is at the epicenter of the outbreak with 586 reported cases and 21 deaths. Twelve people have died from the virus in Dallas County alone. The most cases reported in Dallas in the past were 104 in 2006, zero cases in 2010, and only two in 2010.

Sixty percent of the all the mosquito traps in Dallas have tested positive for the virus, meaning almost every ZIP code in Dallas had mosquitoes infected with West Nile. There were more mosquitoes in Dallas than routine truck spraying can contain. DCMS recommended aerial spraying so the county could cover a widespread area more efficiently to lower the density of mosquitoes.

Until this summer, most people in Dallas had never heard of West Nile virus. But for the first time in 45 years, Dallas County is using aerial spraying to combat the virus — at the urging of my colleagues at the Dallas County Medical Society (DCMS) and me.  We urged local county officials to start aerial spraying to prevent more people from contacting the dangerous, life-threatening virus.

I want to prevent as many people as I can from going through what I did.

Don Read is the past-president and past-chairman of the Board of Directors for the Dallas County Medical Society, and the past president for the Texas Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons.

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