It all started like the flu.
Thinking back to October 2006, that’s how Ahwatukee Foothills resident Pat Harrington begins the story of his experience with West Nile virus.
On a Tuesday, feeling ill, he stayed home from work.
That rolled into Wednesday.
By Thursday, he called his wife.
“I asked her to come home. I was having difficulty walking. On a Friday was when I noticed I couldn’t move my left arm,” Harrington, 58, said.
He saw his doctor, who ran a series of tests to rule out a stroke. One test was for West Nile virus.
“We knew about as much about West Nile as most people, which is not much,” Harrington said.
That night Harrington tried to get out of bed and fell. Soon, paramedics were transporting him to Mercy Gilbert Medical Center where he was admitted to the intensive care unit.
Within a few hours, he couldn’t move and within days, he was confirmed as one of 75 Maricopa County residents diagnosed with the disease that year. Six died.
West Nile virus was first identified in Arizona in 2003. The following year, the county led all counties in the country with human cases and deaths. The disease is passed to humans through a mosquito bite.
Mosquitoes contract the disease when they bite an infected bird.
Most people bit feel no symptoms. In about 20 percent of cases, victims feel like they’ve been hit with the flu: headache, muscle aches, fever, vomiting or a skin rash. Severe symptoms are seen in about one in 150 people infected with the disease, according to the Maricopa County Department of Public Health.
They may range from disorientation, coma, tremors and muscle weakness to numbness and paralysis.
In the past week, Maricopa County has confirmed 10 human cases of the disease and one death.
When he got his diagnosis in 2006, Harrington asked the doctor, “OK, what do we do? He said, ‘Rehabilitation is what you do.’ ”
Harrington spent 10 days in the hospital and nearly two months in a Mesa rehabilitation center where he learned to walk again, developed strength in his arm and learned to care for himself.
“They got me back to walking pretty quickly,” he said. “They got me up that first day … I walked with three people around me between two bars.”
He had to build up an ability to sit, stand and walk properly. While both arms were working at one point, today his left arm is in a sling because he has lost muscle tone and the ability to use it. He underwent physical therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy and psychological therapy.
“I spent an awful lot of time doing every board game you have ever heard of and some you haven’t heard of and questions and tests,” he said.
In January 2007, Harrington began working on special projects for his employer – the Arizona Department of Economic Security. Harrington is assistant director for department for employment and rehabilitation services.
Harrington was back to working in his office by June, about eight months later.
“I was using a wheelchair at that time. I could not walk for distance at all.
We had the office outfitted for that. Doors had to be widened. Automatic doors installed,” he said. “The department was very, very good for me. I couldn’t have asked for a better employer to have had in that circumstance.”
Today, Harrington doesn’t need a wheel chair.
He gets to and from work using public transportation.
And he still can’t pinpoint exactly when he got bit by the culprit — a culex mosquito known to carry West Nile virus.
“I live in Ahwatukee Foothills. I work here (an office building in downtown Phoenix). I’m not what one would call an outdoors man. I have no idea when I got bit. I was probably out on the patio at night and got bit and didn’t even notice it. I don’t remember being bit at all, but must have been. It’s the only way to get it,” he said.
Harrington welcomes the opportunity to share his story and said people ask him about his “great attitude” surrounding the experience.
“I’m almost 59. I have really led a remarkable life. … I’ve been extraordinarily lucky. When I was admitted to the hospital, that was the first in my life … I feel like if I didn’t have a great attitude it would be just wrong of me to go 55 years (his age when he got West Nile) and have this one thing go wrong, get bit by a mosquito one time, and then have everything go to pieces. That would not be right.”
Even today, there are still many questions about the disease.
“There aren’t very many of us,” who have gotten seriously ill, he said. “Nobody really understands very much about West Nile itself.”