GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Al and Joy Walczak never once imagined that their piece of paradise on Grand Rapids’ West Side might harbor danger.
“We’ve spent a lot of summers right here on the porch,” Joy Walczak reminisced recently. “It is ironic: We sat here last year thinking, ‘It’s so beautiful out here. Mosquitoes never bother us.’ But apparently there was at least one.”
There’s no way to know for sure if the bite that gave Al Walczak West Nile virus and changed his life forever happened in the couple’s own front yard, but there’s no question it occurred in Kent County.
He was a healthy, active, guitar-playing retiree who spent his career in international studies traveling the world. But not last summer: The couple didn’t travel outside Kent County in July and August 2017.
“(The mosquito that bit my husband) had to be somewhere nearby,” Joy Walczak said.
The Walczaks hope their story reminds people that while severe illness from West Nile is rare, it is very real — and it’s right here in West Michigan.
FLU-LIKE SYMPTOMS, THEN PARALYSIS
“It was scary,” Al Walczak recalled of the illness that started with headaches and dizziness in late August 2017.
Once someone is bitten by an infected mosquito, symptoms usually appear within two to 14 days.
“I remember telling Joy, ‘I don’t know what’s happening,’” Al Walczak recalled. “’Something weird is happening to me and I don’t know what it is.’ It just felt like I was losing things. I was losing strength, losing balance, losing coordination.”
For a week or so, he was in and out of doctors’ offices and emergency rooms with flu-like symptoms and temperatures that spiked and dropped. Then in the wee hours of a late August morning, he couldn’t get out of bed.
“He couldn’t sit up,” Joy Walczak said. “He couldn’t raise himself up on his elbows. He couldn’t lift his head off the pillow. So at that point we called the ambulance and it took at least three EMTs to get him down the stairs.”
What followed was 140 days in hospitals, including two weeks in intensive care and months on a ventilator and feeding tube.
“He was very still,” Joy Walczak remembered. “I remember watching his toes because he could still wiggle his toes. It was a very faint wiggle, but he could still wiggle them. … I think it was right around the beginning of October that he couldn’t move his toes anymore.”
Within a couple weeks, blood and spinal fluid tests revealed the culprit: West Nile virus.
SERIOUS COMPLICATIONS ARE RARE
Of those infected by West Nile, less than 1 percent develop serious, life-threatening complications. Twenty percent have flu-like symptoms only and 80 percent have no symptoms at all.
About 10 percent of those who develop severe illness affecting the nervous system die. Severe illness can occur in people of any age, but people over 60 years of age are at greater risk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Al Walczak is 67.
His was one of five human West Nile cases reported in Kent County in 2017. The state reported 40 human cases total, including one fatality in Montcalm County.
“I remember my knees buckling,” Joy Walczak said of the moment she heard the West Nile diagnosis. “Because I knew there was no known cure for this.”
There’s also no specific treatment and no clear prognosis. While some people with milder symptoms recover completely, others with more severe forms of the virus sustain permanent damage.
REHAB AND HELP FROM FRIENDS
“When I first examined Al, he had no voluntary motion in all four extremities,” recalled Dr. Sungho Hong, who works at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital in Grand Rapids. “But he had good right-hand finger motion and grip. He had something left over in his right hand and he is cognitively intact, so I thought at the time, ‘We can give you training and education.’”
Walczak has already regained some more movement in his arms, but Hong said there’s no way to know if he will ever get motion back in his legs.
“Patient can recover from paralysis several months later, but there’s no way to know,” Hong said. “I don’t want to give any false hope to the patient.”
Walczak spent two months at Mary Free Bed, undergoing rehabilitation therapy and learning the skills necessary to transition to round-the-clock care at home.
“Patients, their family, their caregivers, they need to know how to take care of their everyday routine,” Hong explained. “Eating, dressing, grooming, moving from bed to chair.”
The Walczaks weren’t the only ones learning new skills. By the time Al Walczak came home from Mary Free Bed in late January, a dozen former colleagues, friends and family members had been trained to care for him, too. Joy Walczak, who has a near full-time job herself, now coordinates a roster of 30 or so people who rotate to help cover her husband’s care.
“Going through this has just kind of demonstrated that the people in my life are amazing people,” Al Walczak said, holding back tears of gratitude. “People continue to support you and to love you. … It makes you feel like you can keep moving on and moving ahead.”
Above all, Walczak said he feels lucky and grateful for the good things and people in his life.
“(West Nile) is not the worst thing that could happen to an individual but it’s a challenge. It could have been a lot worse,” he said.
He’s happy about the movement he’s regained in his arms and has had dreams of walking again.
“We’ll see. Got to keep the faith. Got to keep at it,” he said.
HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF
He’s also hoping that others will learn from his story.
“It’s a struggle and I wouldn’t want anyone to have to go through this. … It’s not that you have to necessarily be paranoid, but maybe it’s time to start thinking about precautions,” Walczak said.
The CDC urges you to take the following steps (PDF) to protect yourself from mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus:
- Wear repellant containing DEET.
- Wear long sleeves and pants.
- Repair ripped window screens.
- Get rid of breeding sites by getting rid of any standing water.
These steps are especially important at dawn and dusk, when mosquitoes are most active.
**Editor’s note: Joy Walczak is a former employee of WOOD TV8.