Editor’s note: Three weeks ago, Review columnist and Forest Park resident Bill Dwyer came down with West Nile encephalitis. Dwyer was one of three people in Forest Park and nearby Oak Park to contract the blood-borne disease in recent weeks. West Nile virus has infected 161 people in Illinois this year, 73 in Cook County alone. As of Sept. 22, nine people have been killed by West Nile. Thankfully, Bill was not.
For a disease that’s made such a splash in the media since its discovery in 1999, identifying the West Nile virus takes a surprisingly long time. It took doctors about a week to finally diagnose what was wrong with me. Picking up on its presence, on the other hand, is a much quicker process.
I wasn’t feeling well a few weeks ago on a Thursday morning, and didn’t get to the office until after 11 a.m. However, other than weakness, low energy and occasional chills, it was bearable.
Around 6:30 p.m., I finished a telephone interview and went home. While lying on the couch I called my parents, who were driving up from southern Illinois for a three-day stay over the weekend.
After hanging up with my mom, it suddenly hit me like a brick in the head. I dragged myself to bed sweating, chilled, and with what would become a 102.5-degree fever and a painful sinus headache. Still, I thought I had just another annoying sinus infection.
Friday I started an antibiotic treatment given to me by my doctor. When I was finally able to see her on Monday, the sinus symptoms were gone, but the fever and fatigue were in full bloom.
This was one nasty little bug.
The hallucinations were particularly interesting and I was not well tethered to Earth for much of the first four days. At least a dozen times I awoke with my hands out in front of me, busily scribbling notes on some subject. I kept scribbling away until I realized I wasn’t holding a pen. At other times I found myself just babbling about one thing or another.
One night I jumped out of bed and loudly questioned my wife as to the whereabouts of the electrical connections for the overhead lighting.
“The overhead lighting!” I pointedly insisted when she asked me to be just a bit more specific. There is no overhead lighting in our bedroom.
While these little flashes of insanity are entertaining, my favorite moment was when I stumbled weakly to the bathroom mirror and stared at my reflection. I had become a chalky-faced ghost with hair stuck straight up in the front. I looked like Martin Short’s Ed Grimley character, only on sedatives and with a far less intelligent look in his eyes.
Had I not been sick, the highlight of the weekend would have been the Chicago Bears’ season opener against Green Bay. I slept through it.
Monday evening I suddenly felt better, but only for about three hours. That night the fever faded but the headache persisted and I was beset by weird burning, aching pains from my lower back to my ankles. For the next 24 hours I stretched continuously, trying to alleviate the pain.
Then it was gone. Just like that. I was left with a more or less tolerable bag of symptoms that included a much milder headache, hands and feet that felt like ice, and of course, serious fatigue.
But I should count my blessings. Being over 50, I’m in a high-risk group for serious complications. All things considered, I got off easy. I only had to contend with West Nile encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain that caused my fever and headache, and left me rather spacey for two weeks. Less fortunate souls must suffer the far more serious nervous system complications of West Nile meningitis, an inflammation of the membrane around the brain and the spinal cord.
I suppose in light of all this, missing the Bears’ season opener isn’t such a big deal.
Unfortunately, there was little my doctor could do for me. Basically, all Western medicine can offer is what the profession refers to as “supportive treatments,” such as bed rest and hydration.
Watching the Bears beat the snot out of Detroit the following Sunday also helps, though the excitement made me dizzy.