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Central California Life Magazine

Keeping the Faith: The silver lining when the worst hand is dealt

Nov 19, 2014 03:08PM ● By Cen Cali Life Magazine

Keeping the Faith: The silver lining when the worst hand is dealt

by Faith Sidlow

Photos courtesy of Chanel Wapner, James Gathany/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Consolidated Mosquito Abatement District

I was enjoying a late morning cup of coffee with a friend a few weeks ago. We were deep in conversation when I glanced up briefly to watch an older man shuffle through the front door of the restaurant, pushing a walker in front of him. Two women held open the door as he struggled to walk into the café. The scene drew my attention away from my friend for a moment. I didn’t recognize the man, and I returned to our conversation.

A few minutes later one of the women walked over to our table. I recognized her.

“Chanel!” I greeted her. “It’s been forever!”

I chatted with Chanel Wapner for a few minutes and then she whispered, “Jim’s over there.”

“Jim?” I asked.

“Yes, Jim Wasson.”

Wasson is a criminal lawyer in Fresno who specializes in DUI cases. I’ve known him for more than 25 years. In fact, we’d just run into each other at a bike shop a few months earlier, and at the age of 71, he was the picture of health.

I looked at the frail man with the walker but still didn’t recognize him.

“That’s impossible,” I said. I walked over to the table where Wasson was sitting with his wife and grandson.

Wasson’s hand trembled as he lifted the cup of tea to his lips. His wife Denise reached over to steady his hand.

And they told me how devastating one tiny mosquito bite could be.

Wasson figures the bite may have happened when he was sitting in the backyard of his Fresno home southeast of Belmont Country Club. About five days later he woke up with a headache. The next day the man who never missed a day of work went home feeling achy and feverish. He stayed in bed for two days. On the third day, he went to urgent care with a fever of 103. The doctor examined him, took X-rays and did blood work. Diagnosis: the flu.

“But this felt different,” Wasson said. “Because of the headache and my lower back ached.”

The next day Wasson woke up with a paralyzed arm. His wife was positive he was having a stroke. His grandson called 911, and paramedics rushed Wasson to Community Regional Medical Center.

Doctors ruled out a stroke. They performed a spinal tap and found spinal meningitis. Wasson was transferred to Kaiser Permanente, where critical care physician Brian Sherman took over. Although it hadn’t been confirmed yet, Sherman was certain Wasson had West Nile virus. He immediately started treatment with a cocktail of antibiotics. He warned the Wassons that encephalitis was next. And he was right.

Wasson spent the next nine days in intensive care, followed by 10 days in the hospital. He was transferred to the San Joaquin Valley Rehabilitation Hospital, where he had a relapse after three days and went back to Kaiser for another three days. Finally, after a month in the hospital, he was allowed to go home. He still has no use of his right arm and has very little energy.

Wasson’s case is one of 30 in Fresno County and 488 in the state this year, according to the California Department of Public Health. That’s more than twice the number of cases in California in 2013. Sixteen people in California have died from the virus so far this year.

West Nile in mosquitos is at the highest level ever in the state, reports the CDPH. Environmental conditions such as drought and high temperatures contribute to the high infection rate, according to Dr. Roger Nasci from the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Division of Vector Borne Infectious Diseases. And even though temperatures have started to decrease, the risk could remain through November. Infected mosquitos have been trapped around the Central Valley as recently as the first week of October. Most people who are bitten by West Nile infected mosquitos will be asymptomatic, according to the CDC. About one in four people develop West Nile fever, and less than one percent suffer neuroinvasive diseases such as meningitis and encephalitis, as Wasson did.

The statistics make the disease sound far removed from reality. But the reality is people like you and me are becoming infected.

“It’s here, and it’s in Fresno, and people who we know, who are healthy, are being stricken with it and becoming critically ill,” Denise Wasson said.

At the same time Wasson is battling the effects of the virus, Clovis North High School baseball coach Tim Thiessen is struggling with similar issues from the disease, including meningitis, encephalitis and paralysis. The Wassons have been in touch with the Theissens, sharing tips and supporting one another. The virus has been devastating for both families.

“The breadwinners can no longer work,” Denise Wasson said. “The law offices are closing; the coach can’t teach. And what happens to people who don’t have good insurance?”

Denise Wasson and Chanel Wapner have committed themselves to fighting West Nile virus. They distribute pamphlets to schools and community meetings, and they’ve joined forces with Fight the Bite to get the word out about symptoms and prevention and how critical it is that patients seek medical attention at the beginning of the 3 to 14-day incubation period. Don’t wait until it’s too late.

“There needs to be a campaign,” Denise Wasson said. “We’re in the Valley. It’s [West Nile virus] here now. And obviously it’s going to get worse every year.”

West Nile virus is preventable. But you must be proactive, Wasson said. Use insect repellent with DEET when you go out in the early morning or evening; wear protective clothing during high-risk times; and eliminate all sources of standing water including old flowerpots or buckets. And if your neighbor’s pool isn’t being maintained, call mosquito abatement. They’ll come out and spray for free.

Throughout the ordeal, Denise Wasson has been by Jim Wasson’s side, and Denise’s best friend Chanel has been there for both of them. This disease has changed all of their lives.

Wasson was forced to shut down his law practice, and he has referred his clients to Chanel’s husband, attorney Terry Wapner. He continues to go to the rehabilitation hospital for physical therapy on his paralyzed right arm. And each day he gets a little stronger.

Wasson doesn’t consider himself a victim. In a way, he looks at this life-altering event as a gift. It motivated him to examine the quality of his life before the illness. And he didn’t like what he saw. He went through “too many years of not having the kind of relationships I’d like to have.” He missed important family events because he was always working. Now he wants to spend time with his grandkids and “teach them things.” And spend more time with his wife of 18 years.

“I said ‘When you get out of here, you’re living,’” Denise said, recalling a conversation in the hospital. “‘You’ve got a second chance. It’s time to live.’”

“It’s humbled me,” Wasson said. “Things that used to bother me don’t bother me any more. It’s put a different perspective on my life. I realized a lot of the crap I worried about is irrelevant. Now I realize, hey, without your health you got nothing.”