West Nile changed local’s lifePublished 12:05am Sunday, August 26, 2012
NATCHEZ — It was a hot August day in 2002 — a few before his 61st birthday — when Pete Smith went to water his azaleas in the front yard of his Rollingwood Drive house.variations
Smith remembers being swarmed by a gang of mosquitoes — one of which he later learned carried a virus.
“I grew up with mosquitoes and never paid attention to them unless I was hunting and couldn’t swat them away, because I had to stay still,” Smith said. “I never thought they’d have such a big impact on my life.”
Days later, Smith began experiencing flu like symptoms — nausea, aches and pains.
The doctor’s recommendation to take some Tylenol seemed appropriate to him, but not to his wife, Betty Jean.
“You get the flu in the winter, not in the summer,” Betty Jean said, recalling her thoughts from almost exactly 11 years ago when Pete was bit. “I had been reading up on West Nile Virus and knew that had to be it.”
In a few days, Pete Smith had gone from aches and pains to having chills, running a fever and a rash from head to foot.
Pete struggled to stay conscious through a visit to the doctor, passing out several times while having his blood taken.
Within a couple of hours, Pete received a phone call from his doctor.
“He said, ‘I’m not sure what you got exactly, but the state health department wants another sample of your blood,’” Pete recalled. “There was a level of complacency back then, so doctors weren’t checking for it and people weren’t trying to protect themselves against it.”
It wasn’t long after more blood samples were sent off that Betty Jean’s original thought — and worst nightmare — was confirmed; Pete had contracted the West Nile Virus from a mosquito that bit him in his front yard.
And even though he didn’t know it at the time, Pete had the neuro-invasive disease, the more serious form of the virus that infects the brain and spinal cord and can cause brain damage or death.
As Pete’s condition continued to worsen and doctors continued to prescribe antibiotics that had no effect, Betty Jean called a Jackson doctor, Art Leis, who was studying the virus.
Leis had previous plans to be in Natchez that following week and agreed to see Pete.
“He was staying at the Ramada Inn and just told us to come there to his room,” Pete said. “He had his computer there and ran some tests and just said, ‘Yep. You have West Nile.’”
At the time, Leis was attempting to connect the effects of neuro-invasive West Nile to those of polio, an infectious disease that attacks gray matter in the spinal cord and can extend into the brainstem.
Pete’s previous history with back injuries and surgeries helped Leis diagnose Pete with West Nile, but also helped to continue his research and eventually led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to agree with Leis’ connections.
But since there is little medical treatment for the West Nile virus, Pete couldn’t do much as he suffered muscle loss, nerve loss and chronic fatigue as the virus began affecting his thought process.
“I remember going to sign my name one day, and I just couldn’t do it,” Pete said. “I originally went back to work thinking I’d be fine, but I was only there a few months before I had to quit.
“That was one of the things that upset me the most — not being able to go to work.”
Pete left his job as manager at Natchez Electric and began his new life as a West Nile Virus patient.
As he was experiencing some of the worst affects of the virus, Pete found hope in the form of a support group in Jackson hosted by the Mississippi State Department of Health.