Oklahoma victim of Heartland virus was healthy, family says

Grove resident Johnny Lee Mitzner, who died from the tick-borne illness, was 76 but in good health, according to his children.
By Sheila Stogsdill, For The Oklahoman Modified: May 29, 2014 at 9:46 pm •  Published: May 29, 2014
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– 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.

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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.

Melissa Crowther,
Her father, Johnny Lee Mitzner, died after being infected with the tick-borne Heartland virus

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