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The Face Of West Nile Virus

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Pastor’s next stop: Mayo Clinic Delayed diagnosis of West Nile virus has lasting effects By KATHERINE HAWES GateHouse News Service Posted Jun 09, 2009 @ 10:19 AM

GALVA — As Rebekah Montgomery finishes her tenure as interim pastor of First Baptist Church of Galva, she is preparing for a new challenge — becoming a patient at the Mayo Clinic. The mosquito-borne illness that takes her to the renowned medical center is West Nile virus, which she contracted six years ago. In 2003, Montgomery, a successful author and speaker, was working in the garden of her Kewanee home when she was bitten by a mosquito.

At the time, she did not give it much thought because she was involved “day and night with a month-long mission project.” Montgomery could not ignore it, though, when she became violently ill while at an out-of-state speaking engagement. She awoke in her hotel room with a high fever, a purple rash on her right shoulder, and nightmares which she describes as something “Stephen King would pay good money for.” She went on to speak at the convention as planned but knew she was very sick. Upon arriving back in Kewanee, Montgomery was still feverish and not well. She tried to go on as usual, but soon realized she was losing the capability to function normally. Her “bellwether day” came when she stood in her kitchen, attempting to salt a dish, and could not make her hand season the food. Montgomery noticed she could not perform other everyday tasks, either, such as writing and brushing her teeth.

After seeking medical attention, she was diagnosed with poison ivy and given Prednisone, a drug that inhibits the activity of the immune system. Montgomery’s symptoms sped up at that point, and she was referred to a neurologist who told her that she had Parkinson’s disease. The corresponding medicine again made her symptoms even worse. She sought the opinion of Dr. Remi Satkauskas in Kewanee, who realized that something was seriously wrong, and that it was not Parkinson’s disease. Due to her physical condition, he sent her to local physical therapist Jon DeBord, who observed her and then identified her illness as West Nile virus.

When she was finally tested for WNV, the amount of virus in her body was extremely high. Montgomery felt relief to at last have a diagnosis. “I was glad to know that it wasn’t multiple sclerosis or any of the other serious conditions that had been discussed for so many months,” she said. “But I didn’t realize how bad West Nile virus was. At the time, nobody realized how dire it was.” According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, West Nile virus is “a potentially serious illness ... established as a seasonal epidemic in North America.” It is spread to humans by the bites of infected mosquitoes that have fed on infected birds. The agency reports that “approximately 80 percent of people who are infected with WNV will not show any symptoms.” They estimate that about one in 150 people infected with WNV will develop severe illness. Severe symptoms include high fever, stiff neck, disorientation, muscle weakness, vision loss, paralysis and more. Finding herself in the second group, Montgomery has seen how cruel an illness it can be. She still suffers from muscle paralysis on the right side of her body, with the severity coming and going. Consequently, she has greatly reduced use of her right hand and foot, and sometimes the right side of her face does not work. Her senses have become more acute, as well, making sound, temperature changes, and odors extremely intense at times.

WNV has changed Montgomery in other ways, too. “Everything always came easily to me, like sports, and now walking is hard for me,” she said. “It has changed me in a profound way, teaching me more compassion than I realized I needed.” Montgomery, a Christian since the age of 3, admits that her relationship with God has changed during this struggle. “I’ve gone through all of the emotions to deal with early on,” she said. “I had a lot of arguments with the Almighty, and have come to realize that all talents and gifts come from God. He can sit someone on the shelf if He wants to.” Although her physical limitations have slowed her down, she has not stopped working for the Lord. She has pastored First Baptist for one year, ending May 31. She’s also been able to continue her many writing assignments, including a weekly column, typing with one hand. “If God calls you to do something, He’ll help you to do it. I have been able to keep up with my writing schedule. And although I haven’t been able to do everything I wanted at First Baptist, I’ve been able to keep up there,” Montgomery noted.

The Galva congregation has done well under her guidance. “I think that Rebekah has been a real asset to our church and the community,” said Pat Gregory, a member and trustee at First Baptist. “It is always a hard time when a church is without leadership, and Rebekah has stepped in and led us in a very positive direction.” “Rebekah has been an inspiration,” she added. “With all of her health problems she has maintained a smile and works very hard at continuing all of her obligations.” Over the past few years, Montgomery has looked for ways to cope with the virus, including participating in an experimental drug trial, taking herbal and vitamin supplements, and joining a study of WNV patients. Limited success has come from the alternative treatments, and she calls the Mayo Clinic her “last hope right now.” “It’s been a fairly miserable journey,” Montgomery acknowledged. “I miss playing the guitar and piano, but I try to focus on what I can do. I have this fight within me to keep going.” Montgomery encouraged anyone who has been bitten by a mosquito to watch out for a rash and fever, and to not assume they are coincidental. “By being proactive and suggesting that a doctor run blood work, WNV can be caught early before it does the majority of damage,” she said.

When dealing with chronic illness, Montgomery noted that “it takes courage to keep going while suffering.” Her battle with WNV has emphasized that life is about choices. “I make it a point to thank the Lord every day for His blessings,” she said. “I can either live a life of moping or a life of praise.” She has chosen the latter. Copyright © 2009 GateHouse Media, Inc. Some Rights Reserved. Original content available for non-commercial use under a Creative Commons license, except where noted.

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