ALBURGH — If you asked Stephen Fitzgerald, Sr. a year ago what his biggest goal was, he probably would have said something mind boggling such as hiking to the top of the tallest mountain in the northeast, Mount Washington. Now, he’d tell you he’s lucky to even be able to get out of bed.
It’s all because of a mosquito bite.
Last October, Stephen’s life was put on hold when a horrible infection forced him into the hospital for eight days.
It all started one evening in Stephen’s backyard. Having worked all day on the production lines at Mylan before going to the gym to workout, it was late when he began working on the fence he was constructing at his Alburgh home.
“The mosquitos were bad that night, but I’m pigheaded. I wanted to get the job finished,” Stephen said. “I don’t know what it was about it, but it almost seemed to hurt when they bit.”
“When he came in that night, he told me the mosquitoes were biting just like bumblebees,” Lydia Fitzgerald, Stephen’s wife remembered.
Soon after, Stephen remembers starting to feel tired.
“I was starting to come home right after work, skipping the gym, and going right to bed,” he said.
A day off from working out might not seem alarming for the average person, but it was not like Stephen to go a day without hitting the gym.
“It was like I ran some type of race or something, I was just so drained,” he described.
If anyone understands the feeling of physical exhaustion, it would be Stephen. He’s the proud owner of a Trifecta medal, which is only awarded to those that finish one of each Spartan races – Sprint, Super and Beast – in a calendar year. Spartan races are grueling obstacle course runs, the easiest being three miles, and the Beast capping out at just over 13. Stephen would also run up Camels Hump, Jay Peak and Mount Mansfield on a weekly basis.
But the exhaustion he was feeling was different and much more intense.
Then the headaches started. Stephen thought it was a migraine, which he’s gotten routinely since he was eight.
“I went to work, and then I started seeing spots. My head was pounding, so I asked to go home. I drove home and went to bed,” Stephen said.
By the time Lydia had gotten home, his headache was so bad he could barely move. So she took him to the emergency room. The doctors started running a bunch of tests, but Stephen wouldn’t have it.
“It was as if I wasn’t who I normally am. I’m normally good natured with everybody, but my attitude was changing,” Stephen said. “So I told the doctors that I was going home.”
That’s exactly what he did. The next day he showered and got ready for work, but Lydia wouldn’t let him leave. She made an appointment with his primary care doctor, who told her to bring him in right away.
“When I got there I went into convulsions,” Stephen said.
He doesn’t remember much of the next eight days, but Lydia filled in the pieces. The doctor was certain he had meningitis, and sent him directly to the emergency room again. Upon arrival at the hospital, Stephen’s temperature had soared to 104.8 degrees and was going into septic shock.
“Once they started giving him antibiotics, the beds and sheets were soaked. His fever started breaking, and he was very combative with the doctors,” Lydia said. “He was just not Steve.”
The doctors then performed a spinal tap and found he tested positive for both meningitis and encephalitis.
“The doctors didn’t know how it happened, but it was an infection from the spine that went up into the brain, and that’s why he was acting the way that he was,” Lydia said.
After spending eight days at NMC, the doctors sent him home, but it still wasn’t clear what had caused the infections. It wasn’t until a week later, when his primary care doctor sent him to Infectious Disease Control in Burlington, that they performed a test for West Nile.
“Twenty four hours later they told us that’s what he had, and that was what caused the meningitis and encephalitis,” Lydia said.
Once it was confirmed that it was West Nile Virus, there was very little the doctors could do. Not only is there not much known about the sickness, there’s very little that can be done for viral infections. Stephen was sent home, and began what continues to be the long road to recovery.
The infection left Stephen with very severe nerve damage that he will likely deal with for years. In the beginning, the pain was so severe he could hardly move. Lydia had to give him showers every day and dress him.
“I was so weak I couldn’t even open water bottles. Lydia would open up six or seven for me before she went to work just so I could drink. That went on for months,” Stephen said.
He was homebound for six months and though it was suggested he stay out longer he went back to work only because he couldn’t take doing nothing anymore.
Now, almost a year later, Stephen can only breathe at night with an oxygen tank and a positive airway pressure machine (PAP). He still has severe pain on his skin that he describes as a nasty sunburn. He also has trouble remembering things and pronouncing some words – all side effects of the nerve and brain damage from the infection.
He has started back up an exercise routine, though much more toned down.
“I’m back to the gym, but only a couple times a week now. I was always into all the classes there, but I can’t do those anymore because they bother my lungs,” Stephen said.
On Labor Day, Stephen completed his first hike of the year. It took him nine hours, but he made it back home, a fact he noted proudly.
“It took me awhile, but I made it. I had to prove that I could do it,” Stephen said.
Though in the past he would always hike in a group, Stephen chose to go alone.
“I didn’t want to feel like I was holding anyone up,” he explained.
The nerve damage Stephen experienced only repairs itself a millimeter a day, doctors told him, meaning it could take years before he notices a difference in the pain he feels. There’s no guarantee it will ever go way completely.
Stephen’s case was one of just three confirmed human infections in Vermont last year, according to information from the Dept. of Health. One was a neighbor of the Fitzgeralds. He was infected right around the same time as Stephen, though his experience wasn’t nearly as severe. Stephen said. The other case was reported in Southern Vermont.
“The way they described it to me,” Stephen said, referring to the doctors, “80 percent of people don’t realize they have West Nile. Twenty percent of the 80 percent could get a really severe flu. Out of the 20 percent of that, 10 percent can get meningitis or encephalitis, or both together. And out of that 10 percent, one percent can get nerve damage.”
“It seems like something that would never happen to you, but I was that one percent, and I don’t want to see anybody go through what I went through,” Stephen said.
Currently there is no human vaccine for the West Nile virus. But according to the Vermont Department of Health there are important precautions you can take, especially during the late summer and early fall months, which is when the virus poses the biggest risk.
“The best way to prevent West Nile virus is to prevent mosquito bites,” Vermont Public Health Veterinarian Natalie Kwit said. “Wear EPA registered repellants, long sleeves and long shirts when outdoors and remove standing water around the home where mosquitoes can breed and lay eggs. Make sure to empty water that may collect in tires, toys, flower pots- those types of things that lay in the yard.”
“Also make sure your screens to your home are properly maintained and you keep all your doors shut,” Kwit said, “That can help prevent the threat of mosquitoes in your home.”
This summer the Health Department reports mosquitoes that have tested positive for West Nile virus in Highgate, Franklin, Alburgh and St. Albans.
“It’s a nasty, nasty virus that people need to know there’s more to than just the flu symptoms,” Lydia said. “People need to protect themselves. Don’t take it for granted that this can’t happen to you, because it can.”