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June 2012
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Local man battles virus, 5 years later

BY LAUREL BLACK lblack@paducahsun.com

There was a time when Don Hise rode his bike so often that people called him "Cheapskate," joking that he cycled as a way to save on gas.

Until 2009, biking and walking were just part of the normal health routine for Hise, now 77. But now, Hise - a retired chemical engineer at Westlake Chemical, Inc. who hoped to travel the world with his wife, Jennie - struggles to overcome the paralysis wrought by a rare infection. 

"The hardest part is not being able to walk and just wanting to walk so bad," Hise said after a therapy session at Parkview Nursing and Rehabilitation in Paducah. "My number one goal is being able to walk ... and then I'll start riding my bicycle around town."

His illness began with a mosquito bite sometime in September of 2009. Hise started experiencing an irregular heartbeat and was hospitalized at Lourdes. Within 24 hours, his health had deteriorated to the point where he suffered paralysis in his limbs and lungs. After running a test on his spinal fluid, doctors discovered Hise had contracted West Nile virus.

"I remember absolutely nothing about the hospital," Hise said. "Not a thing."

One of Hise's two daughters, Dr. Terri Telle, said her father was on a ventilator at various hospitals from mid September through the following March. Telle, who runs a family practice in Reidland, said the diagnosis surprised her.

"At that time, you'd heard of West Nile, but it was something horses got. That wasn't my first thought," she said.

Hise suffered encephalitis (swelling of the brain) and a type of paralysis similar to polio, but those complications are rare. Less than 1 percent of people infected with the virus will develop a serious neurological illness such as encephalitis or meningitis that could lead to death. Only three Kentuckians in 2009 developed the neuroinvasive condition, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

West Nile virus first made its way to the United States around 1999, and has now marched through all lower 48 states. It most commonly transmits itself through mosquito bites, although blood transfusions, breast feeding and organ transplants can also deliver the virus. The majority of people infected experience either no symptoms or mild flu-like symptoms, such as fever, nausea and vomiting, according to the CDC.

"It's not like everybody's running around with West Nile, and most people who get bitten and get it don't even know they have it," Telle said.

Jennie Hise estimates that her husband visited six different hospitals and rehabilitation centers during the course of his illness, partly because of Medicaid restrictions on length of hospital stays. First diagnosed at Lourdes, Hise stayed in three hospitals in Nashville, Tenn., then came to the Calvert City Convalescent Center. He spent  two years there and moved to Frazier Rehab Institute in Louisville for a five-week stay. He returned home for good in April 2012, and now undergoes physical therapy twice a week at Parkview.

"He was the rock of our whole family, from the baby grandchild all the way up through our oldest children," said Jennie Hise, who stayed in Nashville with him and filled three journals while writing about the family's experience. "My husband wasn't ever supposed to be this bad, but all we could do was continue to pray."

Telle said she and her siblings, Yvonne and James, also struggled to cope with their father's illness.

"It's very hard to see your very healthy dad suddenly become unresponsive on a ventilator," she said.

Telle said she's now on a crusade against mosquitos. She encourages people to clear their property of standing water and use bug spray or wear long sleeves and pants.

Nonetheless, "You can do everything right and bad things can still happen," she added.

Her father said he learned an additional lesson over the course of his illness. A long-term health insurance plan is important, he said, as it has allowed him to have two nurses who help his wife care for him. And good health is vital.

"They (the doctors) said I wouldn't have lived if I hadn't been in good health," Hise said.

Contact Laurel Black, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8641, or follow @LaurelFBlack on Twitter.

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