A Roland man who spent 13 months in hospital following a West Nile virus (WNV) infection hopes some normalcy returns to his life this year.
“This year my goal is to be able to get up and onto my tractor, and mow my yard and walk around the house,” said John Hughes, husband and father of two, who says he’s still recovering from his 2016 illness.
“And I would love to get back to work.”
A project manager at Rona in Winkler and reeve of Roland Municipality, Hughes says he’s a living example of how one bite — from an infected Culex tarsalis mosquito — can change your life.
It nearly cost him his.
He distinctly recalls the day he started feeling ill. It was September 2, 2016.
“We were moving my daughter into the city and that weekend I loaded up the truck and trailer and it was all good,” he said. “The next day I felt weak like I had the flu and by the time we drove into the city I said, ‘I don’t think I can lift anything.’”
He steadily felt worse and worse over the next few days, thinking it was flu, but on September 8 he couldn’t get out of bed.
“I couldn’t move my legs,” he said. That’s when his wife Mary-Lou immediately bundled him into the car and rushed him to Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg. He was admitted immediately and a battery of tests ordered. Doctors confirmed he’d contracted WNV.
One in 150
There are no vaccines to prevent WNV, nor medications to treat it, but most who get infected don’t have symptoms, according to information from the U.S. Centres for Diseases Control. Another one in five will develop a fever and other flu-like symptoms. About one in 150 will become extremely ill and can even die.
John was that one in 150 and by September 11 he was in a coma he would not emerge from until late December.
“They told me ‘these are the odds… one-third make a full recovery. And one-third make a partial recovery and one-third die,” said his wife Mary-Lou.
Further complicating John’s condition was that he is diabetic and had a kidney transplant; he was taken off his anti-rejection meds to save his life, she adds.
“They told me they were going to sacrifice his brother’s kidney and take him off all his meds so that he could fight this virus.”
The months that followed were excruciating. John woke up from his coma on Dec. 23. By then his 52nd birthday passed, as had the U.S. election. He says he couldn’t believe it when they told him Donald Trump had won.
Slowly he began to regain his ability to speak, move a hand and shift his head back and forth, but he would spend from March to October in the rehabilitation ward at HSC.
Now home again, he remains in a wheelchair but feels he’s making progress and is eager to resume his busy life. He intends to seek re-election as reeve of Roland in this October’s election.
“I’ve just made that decision this week.”
Gratitude and caution
The couple says by telling John’s story they hope to convey two messages. One is how grateful they are for the support and care they received throughout this ordeal.
Theirs is also a cautionary tale about being bitten by mosquitoes, they add.
They were certainly careful themselves, says the couple.
“We enjoy the outdoors but we always have these huge fans on our back patio running when we’re out there sitting so they’re moving the air,” said Mary-Lou. “We built a screened patio to go out and sit in too,” she adds. There are always cans of mosquito spray around the house to apply, too, she adds.
It will always be a mystery where John was bitten, says the couple. It likely was somewhere he didn’t expect to be exposed to mosquitoes.
As a municipal leader himself, John knows local governments bear a responsibility to protect the public with spray programs. But individuals must take precautions too, he said.
“You have to dress for the winter. You have to dress for the mosquitoes.”
That means covering up in light-coloured clothing when outside and wearing a mosquito spray containing DEET.
“The key word is DEET. There’s a lot of pretty smelling stuff but DEET kills,” he said.
Provincial advisories point out the risk for contracting an infection is typically between mid-July to end of August when mosquito populations are highest. Warm, dry conditions are ideal for Culex tarsalis development and activity.
WNV first appeared in North America in 1999 and spread steadily across the continent. The virus was first detected in birds in July 2002, and now is found throughout Manitoba.
Those who spend large amounts of time outside — such as the farming community — are at the greatest risk of exposure.