During summer 2012, Walt Thurn was talking with a co-worker as they walked over to the coffee machine.
All of a sudden, Thurn, 54, veered left and knocked the man into the wall. Thurn looked at him and said, “I don't have any balance, I think I'm going to fall over.”
About the same time, Thurn's fishing buddy, Sam Wilkinson, went to a customer's office and felt like he was going to pass out. Once he got home, Wilkinson headed to the bathroom, but “my legs wouldn't hardly work.”
Wilkinson, then 43, stumbled and fell into the dresser and tables, at which point his wife insisted on taking him to the emergency room.
Eventually, the fishing buddies both were diagnosed with West Nile virus.
They often fish together in a two-man bass boat on lakes in an Edmond housing addition where Thurn lives. While neither is exactly sure when they contracted the virus, they think it was likely in August 2012 based on when they became ill.
Last year, 178 cases of West Nile were reported in Oklahoma, including 30 deaths, according to the state Health Department.
Christie McDonald-Hamm, epidemiologist with the state Health Department, said there is no way to know if the virus will be an issue in 2013, and if so when it will peak or if it will be as bad as last year.
However, she suggested that instead of fearing the possibility, just prepare by protecting yourself.
Public health officials recommend residents wear mosquito repellent with an active ingredient such as 10 percent to 30 percent DEET, picaridin or oil of lemon eucalyptus on their exposed skin and clothing when outdoors, especially during the evening and early morning hours, McDonald-Hamm said.
“We don't want you to stop your activities or anything like that,” she added. “We do want to promote protecting yourself while continuing your outdoor activities.”
West Nile virus
West Nile virus is primarily spread through the bite of an infected mosquito. And more than 80 percent of people who are exposed to West Nile virus never become sick, McDonald-Hamm said.
Of those who do, most will have a mild illness with symptoms such as headache, fever and tiredness. Some people also may develop a rash. In some cases, West Nile virus can cause severe neurological disease such as meningitis, paralysis or encephalitis.
Symptoms of West Nile meningitis or encephalitis may be intense headaches, dizziness, stiff neck, severe weakness, muscle tremors, confusion or seizures.
There is no treatment for West Nile virus, McDonald-Hamm said. Those experiencing severe illness often are hospitalized and given increased supportive care.
Feeling the effects
The first day Thurn started feeling effects, he found himself laying his head on his desk during a conference call. The second day he checked the co-worker into the wall on the way to get coffee. The third day, he went to work and just sat at his desk. By 10 a.m., Thurn was at the doctor.
There were days he felt he had his strength back, but within a short time he'd be on the couch. Looking back, Thurn said he had the rash, fever, memory loss and was “very, very lethargic.”
“As soon as you thought you were feeling better, you would have a relapse and all the symptoms would start coming back,” Thurn said.
He was back at work after three weeks, but it took about a month before he felt he had recovered.
Wilkinson had been feeling the effects, too. He was at the pharmacy picking up some medicine and ran into Thurn's wife, who mentioned her husband was sick. The buddies talked on the phone and compared symptoms. Their situations weren't improving.
Eventually, after Thurn tested positive for West Nile, he called Wilkinson who went to the doctor. He, too, tested positive.
Wilkinson had a tougher time rebounding.
“Once at the hospital, they gave me some I.V.'s and said that it was very close to going into my spinal fluid,” Wilkinson said.
He went home and rested and finally recovered.
Time to fish
Wilkinson has pressed the button on his trusty Zebco reel on the banks of lakes and farm ponds in northwest Oklahoma since at age 5. He'd go out with his dad, and occasionally his mom would come along. Wilkinson's memories are made of landing bass and catfish. Thurn grew up in Ohio. His recollections are more about pulling walleye from Lake Erie.
It is thought you can get West Nile virus only once in your lifetime, McDonald-Hamm said.
Regardless, Wilkinson and Thurn both say it wouldn't change their plans. They'd still fish. They'd just make sure they had the insect repellent on.
Both know they were lucky the effects were not worse. They've learned from the experience and are sharing the message.
“Fishing is what my dad and children have always done for time together,” Wilkinson said. “This is a lot of fun for me and my family and friends, but I will take the precautions.”
Thurn said the thing is, you could be in working in your flower bed or doing other things and be at risk.
“You don't have to be in a boat,” he said. “You can be standing at your neighbor's grill eating a burger.
“Starting in the next week or two, if I go out, I'll spray my body and my shirt. Since I went through it, I'll see people outside and think, ‘I hope they have their bug spray on,' because it's just that serious.”