This month the court of Morrow County, Oregon received a request to declare a West Nile virus state of emergency due to a sudden appearance of infected mosquitos there. West Nile is a pathogen that is native to Uganda, and can be transmitted to humans with a single mosquito bite.
Morrow county is a place that is near to the hometown of author, Emily Smucker. But West Nile virus is a disease that is not so dear to her heart, after she lost her senior year in high school to it.
In her newly released book, Smucker gives a detailed account of her struggle to survive the potentially deadly West Nile virus after she contracted it at the age of 17. What was thought at first to be just another “Emily flu,” turned into a serious chronic illness that the teenager is still struggling to overcome two years later.
While most people will experience no symptoms or mild effect after being bitten by West Nile infected mosquitos, others will experience severe and long-lasting effects which can include encephalitis, meningitis, and permanent damage to the central nervous system. If the virus spreads to the brain, death is a possibility as well.
Considering the worst possibilities of the virus, the severe fevers, headaches, and debilitating weakness that incapacitated Smucker were not the worst things that could have happened to her. Being isolated from her friends, missing every aspect of her senior year, and not being able to graduate, however, made it feel to Emily that the worst things that could have happened had actually happened. She was still a teenager, after all.
“Sometimes it feels like I’ll never be able to do anything in life, to go anywhere in life, because I’m sick all the time” Smucker wrote in her book. “And other times it feels like I am missing a huge chunk of life, and in place of that missing chunk is sickness.”
Smucker’s experiences with battling West Nile virus were documented on her blog while she was living through them. Her book is a memoir of sorts which gives readers an intimate look at the emotional, spiritual, and identity crises that chronic illness can create. The author provided more insights about the experiences documented in her book during an open web conference this month, which has been viewed by more than 1,000 people. The teen fielded about 300 questions and comments from participants during that event.
“The world would be an easier place if everyone I knew had gotten West Nile in their past, that way I wouldn’t have to spend so much time explaining to people what it was like,” Smucker wrote in her book. “So maybe someday someone else will have the same thing, and I’ll make their life a little easier, because I’ll know how to empathize.”
With the outbreak in Oregon this week, and other major West Nile outbreaks reported in California, Alberta, Canada, and even the Galapagos Islands this summer, unfortunately, Smucker may have to see that wish come true.