By Patrick Winderl/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
The majority of the people who contract West Nile virus will never know it. Longtime Havre businessman Lyle Watson was not so lucky. He nearly died.
"There's a lot of it I don't remember," he said during a telephone interview from his Great Falls hospital room Wednesday. "It's tough to remember things when you're in a coma."
Watson, 75, was given a 10 percent likelihood of survival after falling into a coma caused by encephalitis, a result of West Nile. He lay unconscious for two weeks before the swelling in his brain subsided.
Although his prognosis is much better now, the damage caused by West Nile has created new challenges for Watson.
"This thing is so bad, you wouldn't believe," Watson said. "I have to learn to walk, to talk, to swallow all over again."
Simple things like reading and arithmetic, which the professional appraiser once did with ease, now require hours of study to complete, Watson said.
"It's quite a thing to have to start over. It just kills your memory. The doctors said it diswires your brain," he said. "You have to learn everything all over again. I practice arithmetic and adding every day."
Even little things leave him exhausted, Watson said.
"It's tough to shave, wash my face, brush my teeth. It's terrible. Nobody should have to go through this," he said.
It also was difficult for Watson to write a letter to the editor in support of a funding measure for a mosquito control district in Hill County that will appear on Tuesday's ballot. Watson composed the letter with the help of his family.
Watson was one of a small percentage of people who became very ill from West Nile virus. The virus is carried is by mosquitoes, and can be passed to animals and humans.
In the United States, there have been 7,386 confirmed human cases of West Nile virus in 2003, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A total of 155 people nationwide died from the disease this year, including two in Montana.
The number of confirmed cases this year has risen since 2002, in which 4,156 people contracted the virus, according to the CDC's Web site. Of the 44 states where humans have been found to have West Nile, Montana ranks seventh highest in total number of cases.
The number of victims who go undiagnosed is likely very high, the CDC's Web site said. Of the people who contract the virus, 80 percent will have no symptoms. About 20 percent will suffer mild symptoms, including fever, headache, nausea, vomiting and rash. Many victims mistakenly believe they have the flu. Mild symptoms of West Nile typically last only a few days.
About one of every 150 victims will develop severe illness, the CDC said, including "disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions, vision loss, numbness, paralysis" and death, the Web site said.
Watson said he believes he contracted the disease while appraising a property near Havre in early September. The onset of his illness was sudden, and he cannot recall many of the details.
In addition to the encephalitis, Watson suffered from debilitating anxiety attacks.
"The anxiety problems were terrible," he said. "Something gets in your head, and just keeps turning. I couldn't sleep for a week. You can't stop it."
Despite his ordeals, Watson said he is optimistic about his recovery, but that there are still uncertainties.
"I'm hoping to make a full recovery, but who knows? They don't know enough about it yet," he said. "Once Mother Nature tinkers with that brain, you get a lot of complications. It might take a long time. The therapy is really something. It's really hard, but in order to progress you have to do it."
Watson said he is able to derive some inspiration from the therapy, which he believes is helping.
"I have five or six sessions a day of training, for an hour or a half hour (each)," he said. "That seems to really keep me going."
Most people in Watson's hospital slippers would not feel lucky. He feels differently. After all, the feeding tube in his stomach has been removed, he's no longer in a coma, and, with a little help from his family, he can walk for short distances.
"I feel terrible lucky," he said. "They gave me a 10 percent chance to live."
Watson met another West Nile patient at Benefis Healthcare.
"I think he's worse off than I am," he said. "He just kind of lays in bed."
Watson is one of eight confirmed human cases of West Nile in Hill County, county director of nursing Cindy Smith said.
Another Havre man who contracted it said the illness was the worst he has experienced in his life.
"I was sick for a whole month, August through September," said 56-year-old Scott Wink. "I had an excruciating headache, a horrible rash from my neck to my toes. I had painful joints and difficulty sleeping. My muscles got so weak I couldn't walk upstairs without the railing."
Wink lost his appetite, and even had difficulty drinking water. He lost more than 25 pounds in a single month.
"The other thing that was really difficult is that I literally couldn't read anything," he said. "I couldn't comprehend what I was doing. There were days I couldn't remember how to turn my computer on."
Watson said he doesn't feel the public has enough concern about West Nile.
"People push it off, like it's not a problem," he said. "If they had to go through this, they would understand. It's the worst thing in my life I've ever had to endure."
Watson encouraged people to support a funding measure for the Hill County Mosquito Control District. The district, which covers Havre and the immediate surrounding areas, was formed in August. A measure to fund the district will appear Tuesday on city election ballots and on a special ballot for those who live outside city limits but within the district.
City residents can vote at their normal polling places. Those who live outside the city will vote at the Hill County Courthouse.
Watson said he hopes the virus can be eradicated through science and technology, but that in the meantime, supporting the mosquito control district is the best option.
"I really hope people support it," he said. "(West Nile) could become a major disaster and we need to do something about it. Anyone who doesn't vote for this is not right upstairs."