Fighting the ravages of the West Nile virus

By Kate Harrison Belz

Chattanooga Time Free Press

Published: Sunday, Aug. 31 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this Aug. 16, 2012 file photo, mosquitos are sorted at the Dallas County mosquito lab in Dallas.

LM Otero, File, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — The tiny bite arrived and faded from Dot Ingle's skin before she even noticed it was there.

She never detected the tiny legs that landed on one of her limbs one day in late August of 2012. She never felt the sting when the tiny beak pierced her skin. There was no peculiar itch.

All evidence of the attack was gone by the time Dot was rushed into the Erlanger emergency room, two years ago today. There was only damage.

Dot's legs buckled beneath her, leaving her unable to move. Her whole body ached. And she had no idea who she was.

She faded in and out of consciousness as doctors worked to both stabilize her and solve the mystery of what was shutting down her nervous system.

They hustled samples of blood and other fluids to the lab. The doctor who took a spinal tap soon approached Dot's husband, James, and took him aside.

"She may not make it," the doctor told James.

All James felt was emptiness, a caving-in within himself. He could barely keep himself upright.

Just a few days ago his 67-year-old wife had been working outside and swimming in the pool, vivacious and in top-notch health. Recently retired, the two were dreaming of travel out West. They were planning a trip to San Antonio in a few weeks.

That week she started feeling like she had the flu, worsening each day. On Friday, when Dot woke up not knowing who James was, he told her to get dressed. They were going to the ER.

Dot dressed herself, walked down the steps to the car, and climbed in. By the time they had driven 26 miles to Erlanger hospital, she couldn't move her legs.

There was no warning for such a sudden deterioration, no clues James could give the doctors, nothing he could point to that could be responsible.

That would come 10 days later when a doctor with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named the tiny, inconspicuous culprit:

A mosquito.

West Nile is spread when mosquitoes feed on birds infected with the disease. The insects — now "vectors" — can spread the virus when they bite humans and animals.

The virus first showed up in the U.S. in 1999. There has been an outbreak of the virus every summer since.

"West Nile is here to stay," said Dr. Abelardo Moncayo, Tennessee's state medical entomologist and director of the state health department's vector-borne diseases program.

"Every year it's going to be different, but we can expect it every year."

For Dot, a diagnosis of West Nile brought relief, but not answers.

There is no treatment for the virus. And though 25 doctors examined Dot, none could give her a long-term prognosis.

"They told us there are no guarantees," says James.

The couple turned to their faith, putting the matter in the Lord's hands, they say.

In churches across the region, people lifted prayers for Dot. The couple's mailbox was stuffed with get-well cards from strangers.

After two weeks at Erlanger, Dot was admitted into inpatient care at Siskin Hospital for Physical Rehabilitation.

The virus had ravaged her spine, damaging the nerves that let her balance and allowed her legs to work. They were like noodles when she started therapy.

She had to learn how to use her muscles again, step by grueling step.

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