As shown originally in article by Katharhynn Heidelberg in Montrose Press on 9/13/22
Tara Rhodes has a message for those who might ignore public health warnings about West Nile virus: Don’t.
Rhodes, 69, was being treated through immunotherapy for melanoma. Although that carries side effects, what she began experiencing a few weeks ago didn’t feel normal. That’s because she had West Nile virus — and it had caused swelling in her brain’s lining, one of the most severe outcomes for the disease, which killed three others in Montrose County in recent weeks.
In between having the MRI scheduled and returning for it after taking anti-allergens for the contrast dye, Rhodes began to suspect trouble.
“I knew something was very wrong with me, but I didn’t know what. I was having trouble putting words together. I could sort of see the words swimming in my head,” she said. “The virus causes swelling and inflammation around your brain stem. I was having trouble verbalizing. I was having trouble walking. My gross motor skills were really compromised. I was just horrendously tired. I just wanted to sleep.”
And sleep she did, for nearly two days straight. She also was running a fever.
“But I wasn’t aware of any of it. It was like a weird stupor. My eyes would flick open and I would think I should get up. I would nod off again,” said Rhodes, who also experienced vomiting.
“Your brain is being severely impinged by this terrible virus. You just have no control over yourself,” she said.
Rhodes kept her MRI appointment and at it, was also given a CT scan. Because of what health care providers saw on her MRI, they recommended a spinal tap to take a fluid sample. This was sent off to the Mayo Clinic, while Rhodes was admitted to ICU. The tests confirmed West Nile virus-induced meningitis and Rhodes promptly received treatment for the meningitis.
“I don’t know if God has a hand, or the saints, or what, but early intervention is key,” Rhodes said, urging anyone with symptoms to seek diagnosis and care.
Medical experts also say early intervention is critical to a better outcome, in the relatively rare instances in which West Nile virus results in serious complications or long-term effects. Fewer than 1% of people with the virus develop meningitis or encephalitis, but although there are not treatments specific to the virus, there are treatments for these complications.
“My oncologist scheduled had scheduled me for a brain MRI, which was kind of routine. It was a complete coincidence that it appears I became infected with West Nile at the same time. It was one of those strange, quirky things,” Rhodes said Sept. 9.
Most people who are infected with West Nile virus — via a bite from an infected culex mosquito — do not present with symptoms. Approximately 20% develop flu-like symptoms and it can be difficult to distinguish between West Nile and an influenza virus without testing. However, severe and unusual headaches, an inability to tolerate seeing light, or weakness are among the signs that it is time to immediately seek help.
Most recent state data showed 63 human cases in Colorado, of which 38 were classed as neuroinvasive, like Rhodes’. Montrose County public health officials previously cautioned that there have been more serious cases this year than in years past.
“It affects you extremely; it’s a very serious infection,” Rhodes said. She implored people with symptoms to seek help right away and not hesitate to call 911 if they have no one to help them get to the hospital.
“Early intervention is what helped me. I’m absolutely convinced of that. I could have been disabled. I could have been paralyzed. There are a number who have died of West Nile this year. It’s really important for people to be aware,” Rhodes said.
Rhodes was released from the hospital in early September and is recovering. “It just wipes you out, just annihilates you. The best thing you can do is sleep, because you have to give your body that recovery time and that healing time. That also allows the swelling to go down from the meningitis,” she said.
“Don’t try to laugh this off. This isn’t a head cold and it’s not a little thing. It’s serious.”
Despite the severe complications, Rhodes believes she has been comparatively fortunate, given the circumstances. “I’m not going to climb any trees anytime soon. It affected my mobility skills very much, but I just slept and slept. Again, if I hadn’t gotten early intervention, I’m not sure I would have come out of it as well as I have,” she said.
“This was one of those really bad meetings with a mosquito. It was one of those happenstance things, but it’s because West Nile is on the rise. It is more prevalent.”
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.