UC Davis scientist recounts battle with neuroinvasive West Nile virus
Keira Simmons knew something was wrong the minute she woke up that fateful morning in mid-June 2005.
A strange red rash splotched her inner arms and torso. Within 4 days, the rash covered her entire body, even between her fingers and toes. A knife-splitting headache, coupled with crushing muscle pain, vomiting, neck stiffness, fatigue, dizziness and nausea ensued.
Her normal 98.5°F degree temperature spiked to 102°F and then raged to 106.5°F. She dropped 20 pounds in 10 days.
The UC Davis scientist remembers four trips to the hospital emergency room, a 3-day hospitalization to treat the raging fever, worsening pain, dizziness and dehydration, and a 3-week recovery period at home. The illness incapacitated her for 7 weeks.
It nearly killed her.
“The doctors thought I had the flu,” recalls Simmons, then 27 and a postgraduate researcher in a UC Davis School of Medicine lab.
It was not the flu.
Only after she had accepted a research position in November 2005 at the UC Davis Center for Vectorborne Diseases (known as CVEC), did a routine blood test confirm her worst suspicions: neuroinvasive West Nile virus, the most severe virus spread by Culex mosquitoes.
Keira Simmons, now a researcher at the UC Davis Center for Vectorborne Diseases, still suffers side effects from West Nile virus.
“Keira's blood test proved strongly positive for the West Nile virus,” said CVEC research entomologist William Reisen, who researches Culex mosquitoes.
Looking back, Simmons speculates that the infected mosquito bit her when she and her fiancé were hiking along Putah Creek on the UC Davis campus.
Hospital technicians drew her blood, but Simmons learned later that it was never tested for West Nile virus, even though she had repeatedly asked for the test. “They ran a few noninvasive tests and some cultures. When none of them was conclusive, they simply gave me IV fluids and sent me home. They said I had the flu.”
The illness alarmed her family and friends. “No one around me had been sick and no one was getting sick from exposure to me. It was quite frightening for my mom, dad, sister and fiancé to stand by, powerless, and watch me deteriorate.”
When her personal physician admitted her to the hospital, “I wasn't real aware of my surroundings or what was going on at that time. I had literally started to mentally check out,” she says. “I was quite fortunate that I had my fiancé, family and my physician advocating on my behalf.”
Today side effects still persist. “I feel generally healthy,” Simmons says, “but I still have about three or four headaches of migraine-intensity a week. I also still have some weakness in my arms and hands, affecting my manual dexterity. I have transient spells of vertigo that leave me unable to work in my capacity as a researcher.”
“I have no idea when these symptoms will resolve. West Nile virus is so new to our population that they really don't have any idea how it may affect people or their quality of life.”
Since her encounter with the infected mosquito, Simmons works with a renewed interest as a researcher and the lead molecular technician at CVEC, testing mosquito pools and dead bird tissue submitted from throughout the state.
Had she not changed jobs and taken the mandatory blood test, Simmons believes the disease may have gone undiagnosed. Her reaction to the positive blood test? “Vindicated. Validated. I knew there was something seriously wrong with me.”