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West Nile virus nearly kills this South Dakota woman

Agriculture.com Staff 02/17/2008 @ 11:00pm

Linette Ulrickson rarely missed a day of work. But a terrible headache and a stiff neck one day in early August sent her home from her job at Newton Hills State Park near Canton, South Dakota.

That evening, her symptoms intensified. Her husband, Dave, urged her to go the emergency room. "I told him if I wasn't better by morning, I'd go to the doctor," Linette says.

She couldn't get an appointment until the afternoon. Her doctor admitted the 49-year-old farm woman to a Sioux Falls hospital where her condition deteriorated. Her speech slurred, and a breathing tube was inserted two days later. The next day she slipped into a coma. Spinal tap test results confirmed West Nile meningitis and encephalitis.

The first reported case of West Nile virus in the U.S. was in 1999. Transmitted by mosquitoes, 20% of the cases cause a mild, flu-like illness. There's no vaccine or treatment.

Cases of West Nile virus more than doubled in 2007 from 2006, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Dakotas and California were the hardest-hit areas last year. As of October 31, 2007, there were 207 human cases in South Dakota; five deaths resulted from the disease.

"There was only a 10% chance of encephalitis and 1% chance of meningitis in patients with West Nile virus," Linette says. "I had both."

After two days in a coma, the doctors saw signs of improvement, and the next day her breathing tube was removed. A feeding tube was inserted, but she pulled it out, tearing an artery and requiring surgery. Back in the intensive care unit, the feeding tube was inserted into her stomach. She began to improve.

"I don't remember the first month of my illness," Linette says. "My family tells me how bad it was."

After six and a half weeks, she was released from the hospital. Her daughter and son had left for college, and harvest was about to start. Her mother helped while Linette went to physical and occupational therapy three times a week.

She returned to work in late October. She continues therapy and exercises at home on alternate days. "I'm much better," she says. "But my right shoulder to my elbow is not back to normal yet. The doctor says it's a miracle I'm alive."

Symptoms -- headache, stiff neck, confusion, weakness, and paralysis -- must be apparent for at least two weeks before a blood test is valid.

"The elderly are at high risk," says Lon Kightlinger, state epidemiologist, South Dakota Department of Health. "I can't emphasize enough how crucial it is to take precautions."

He advises people to use repellent with DEET, picaridin, or oil of lemon eucalyptus; cover as much skin as possible; limit dusk and dawn outdoor time; and eliminate standing water.

"I never knew West Nile virus could be so bad," Linette says. "It's affected every part of my life."

If there's a silver lining, she says it's a renewed appreciation for her husband, family, and friends. "Protect yourself, but don't live in fear," she says. "Live each day to the fullest."

Linette Ulrickson rarely missed a day of work. But a terrible headache and a stiff neck one day in early August sent her home from her job at Newton Hills State Park near Canton, South Dakota.

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