Pinellas West Nile victim suffers effects years later

“West Nile can kick your butt,” says Jimmy Becker, shown with his cat, Sam. Becker, who contracted the disease in 2005, uses a cane to walk and sleeps upright in a chair every night.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

“West Nile can kick your butt,” says Jimmy Becker, shown with his cat, Sam. Becker, who contracted the disease in 2005, uses a cane to walk and sleeps upright in a chair every night.

LARGO — Jimmy Becker hobbled out to his front porch. He set down his wooden cane and pulled out his stash to show his visitor: two citronella candles, a lighter, two cans of Off.

"I don't go outside without protection,'' said Becker, 62.

Becker, a retired electrician, was one of 18 people to contract West Nile virus in Pinellas in 2005, the first year human cases of West Nile surfaced here. The past seven years have been a struggle, and he continues to suffer often-painful effects of the virus.

As he monitors the news, hearing reports of outbreaks like the one in Texas where more than 1,438 human cases have been identified with 54 deaths, he's keeping his fingers crossed.

"We don't want it to come here,'' Becker said. "West Nile can kick your butt.''

So far this year, Pinellas has been lucky. No cases have been reported on this side of Tampa Bay. At the end of August, though, the Hillsborough County Health Department announced that a human case had been identified there, and on Sept. 26, the Hernando County Health Department alerted the public that one of its sentinel chickens in Brooksville had tested positive.

Most people who contract the virus either don't realize they have it or experience mild flulike symptoms. One percent, though, develop a serious neurologic illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Becker was part of the 1 percent. Before his illness, he walked 7 miles a day, rode a motorcycle and dreamed of taking his wife, Gail, to Europe.

Now Becker walks hunched over with constant pain, unable to get around without the help of his cane and leg brace. He has restless-leg symptom, a disorder in which there is an uncontrollable urge to keep moving the legs to stop unpleasant sensations.

Because of vertigo coupled with difficulty swallowing, he sleeps upright in a chair every night.

"Jimmy hasn't slept in his bed for seven years,'' said Gail Becker, his wife of 39 years. "He's accepted it, but (the effects of West Nile) just don't end. It goes on and on.''

Dr. Stephanie Yendell, an epidemic intelligence service officer for the CDC, said that doctors have seen symptoms linger long term and that some victims have "continued physical limitations over time. This can sometimes include weakness, tremors or difficulty walking without assistance.

"It's important for us to remind people that because there is no specific treatment for West Nile virus, prevention is critical.''

Becker thinks he came in contact with an infected mosquito on one of his early-morning walks to Taylor Park, about four blocks from his home.

He first felt sick, as if he had the flu, on July 28, a Thursday.

"But he kept getting worse,'' Gail Becker said. "On Saturday night, his fever got over 103, 104, and I kept telling him to go the emergency room, but Mr. Stubborn wouldn't go.''

On Sunday morning, as she tried to persuade him to sip Gatorade to rehydrate, she watched her husband collapse on the living room floor.

She rushed him to the emergency room.

"The doctors right away told me that it looked bad. An infectious-disease doctor came out and said they thought it could be West Nile,'' she said.

"He was unconscious for the most part for days, and when he did wake up, he couldn't move.''

In early August 2005, he was moved to a nursing and rehabilitation facility, first at HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital and later at Oak Manor Healthcare, both in Largo.

"I had to learn to walk all over again,'' he said. "And I remember feeling like when I'd try to get my arm to move, it would just laugh at me.''

When he got the green light to go home in November, his wife realized there was another problem.

"He was depressed,'' she said. "He planned on sitting in his chair until he died.''

She and their son created a wood shop on wheels in the garage. It piqued his interest.

"One of the first things I made was a cane,'' he said. "The doctors told me I needed one if I didn't want to use a walker, so I made one.''

Seven years later, Jimmy Becker spends most of his time with his wife and two grown children, Justin and Jamie. He also devotes hours in his wood shop to making gifts for family members and friends.

The only time he has been inside Taylor Park since the illness was on a Saturday in 2008.

"I haven't really wanted to go in there, but I did go inside once. Our friend's daughter was celebrating her confirmation with a picnic,'' he said. "I took her a wooden cross.

"But we didn't stay long.''

West Nile virus

West Nile virus, first seen in 1937 in a woman in the West Nile province of Uganda in Central Africa, is carried by mosquitoes and can be transmitted to humans. Although most people who contract West Nile show no signs of the virus, some experience symptoms like fever, headache, fatigue, body aches, skin rash and swollen lymph glands. One in 150 people will develop serious problems, including paralysis or coma, or may even die. Neurological effects may be permanent. There is no specific treatment for West Nile, making prevention critical. This year there have been no human cases reported in Pinellas County. In Hillsborough, one human case was reported in August. Health officials, though, encourage caution when it comes to mosquitoes.

To avoid being bitten, wear long sleeves, limit outdoor activity at dusk and dawn, the time when mosquitoes are the most active, and use bug spray containing DEET, found in most repellents.

Mosquito control

Pinellas County Mosquito Control monitors 56 sentinel chickens and has mosquito traps in 40 places from Oldsmar to the southern end of St. Petersburg, said district operations manager Nancy Iannotti. Workers also drive through areas in a truck, "fogging'' with an insecticide geared toward killing adult mosquitoes. Most often the work is done in the middle of the night, "to avoid contact with people,'' Iannotti said. It is also important to remove standing water from around your home.

If you have a specific concern about mosquitoes and would like to either speak with Mosquito Control or schedule a home visit with a representative, call (727) 464-7503.

Pinellas West Nile victim suffers effects years later 10/13/12 [Last modified: Saturday, October 13, 2012 3:05pm]

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