GROVE – An Army veteran and a lifelong outdoorsman, Johnny Lee Mitzner was not a sickly man.
So when Mitzner, 76, of Grove, died May 21 from the Heartland virus, his family was shocked to learn it was caused by a tick bite.
His children, Morgan and Mark Mitzner and Melissa Crowther, want to help educate people about the virus.
“We had a healthy father but for the last month,” Crowther said. “My dad was never a sick man.”
Crowther, who lives in Port St. Lucie, Fla., said the only time Mitzner had ever been hospitalized was for an appendectomy.
About a month before his death, Mitzner began stumbling, losing his memory and losing his speech, Crowther said.
The state Health Department reported he was the 10th person in the nation to have the virus and the state’s first confirmed case. Symptoms can include fever, fatigue, headaches, muscle aches, loss of appetite, nausea, bruising easily and diarrhea.
Mitzner, who normally rose for the day about 4:30 a.m. and worked long hours at his lawn service, noticed unusual fatigue, Crowther said.
“He thought he had the flu symptoms — he was really tired and very dizzy.”
When Mitzner went to see a doctor his white count and platelets were so low he was taken to Integris Grove Hospital’s emergency room, his daughter said.
The family then transferred Mitzner to Freeman Health in Joplin, Mo., Crowther said.
“He was seen by five specialists from Joplin and Springfield, Mo.,” she said. “They ran every test you can imagine.”
The tests all came back negative for bacterial infections, she said.
“They were treating him for a tick disease, but it (medication) wasn’t touching my dad (illness),” Crowther said.
Soon Mitzner’s organs began failing — liver, pancreas, kidneys and lungs, she said. He eventually succumbed to pneumonia from a viral infection related to the tick bite, Crowther said.
“Seven people have survived (the virus),” Crowther said. “I think because of my father’s age was the reason he couldn’t fight the virus. But he fought hard.”
Mitzner, a widower, owned and operated Entire Lawn Care with his son, Mark.
“He used commercial mowers, he didn’t use a brush hog or work around a lot of brush,” Crowther said.
“We don’t know when he was bit. It could have been six months ago, a month, or one day.”
Crowther said they examined her father’s body from head to toe and did not see any visible bite marks.
“No one knows where he got bit,” Crowther said. “We don’t know what the death bite was.”
Did you know?
About the Heartland virus
Rocky Mountain spotted fever and ehrlichiosis are more common in Oklahoma, said Becky Coffman, state Health Department epidemiologist.
The Heartland virus is thought to be found in the Lone Star tick, also known as Amblyomma americanum, and is likely spread through tick bites, Coffman said.
The illness was first diagnosed in 2009 in Missouri using Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lab protocol, she said. The virus also has been reported in Tennessee, Coffman said.
“Commercial and hospital labs cannot test for the Heartland virus,” Coffman said. “Most labs can test for most of the diseases caused by tick bites.
“There is no treatment or a cure yet. Prevention is very important.”
Health care providers can contact the state Health Department’s acute disease service at 271-4060 for consultation if they have a patient with symptoms similar to those of the Heartland virus.
We don’t know when he was bit. It could have been six months ago, a month, or one day.
Her father, Johnny Lee Mitzner, died after being infected with the tick-