Posts tagged Batch3
Fighting for Life After West Nile Virus

In August of 2012, Charlie Atkinson was bitten by a mosquito in the garden outside his home in Cambridge, Mass.

From that bite, against the odds, he contracted West Nile Virus. It nearly killed him.

Charlie was in a coma for more than a week, paralyzed in his left arm and right leg. He spent more than 400 days total in two hospitals. He is still recovering.

Before the fateful insect bite, Charlie, married, with four children and nine grandchildren, was incredibly active. He was an avid tennis player, a self-taught pianist, an educator and entrepreneur who started numerous companies. West Nile Virus changed that life.I met Charlie, now 78, on a snowy December day at his home, now retrofitted with a wheelchair ramp and a stair lift. We spoke in the sunny dining room, which has been transformed into a bedroom, complete with a hospital bed and Charlie’s ventilator equipment (he has a tracheostomy and is on the ventilator at night). Charlie lay propped up on his pillows as we spoke, and his warm handshake and bright eyes made me feel right at home.

A self-described “Just Do It” guy, Charlie fought his way back from near death with amazing determination. He surpassed the predictions of the medical community and has continued to make progress: he can now get around with a roller walker and even take steps on his own with a cane.

But beyond his physical comeback, Charlie’s story is also about learning to be a smarter patient; questioning the conventional medical wisdom and seeking out health care providers who are truly compassionate.

West Nile Virus is an arthropod-borne virus (an arbovirus), most often spread by mosquitoes between the months of June and September. It has been found in 48 states (all but Hawaii and Alaska) and in the District of Columbia. It was first detected in North America in 1999 and has continued to spread since that time. In 2013, the CDC reported 2,374 cases and 114 deaths.

With an incubation period of 2-14 days, only one in five people infected will develop symptoms, most commonly fever, body aches, joint aches and other relatively minor ailments. Less that 1% of infected individuals develop serious and at times fatal neurologic illness, including encephalitis and poliomyelitis, like Charlie. While the odds of serious illness are low, the consequences can be devastating. Without any viable treatment options or a vaccine, prevention is essential.

West Nile isn’t something we typically worry about, but after hearing Charlie’s saga, I know I will be more conscientious about covering up, applying mosquito repellent and staying indoors during peak mosquito hours during the summer months.

More importantly, Charlie’s story has taught me a lot about the power of a positive attitude in healing. In coming to terms with his lasting physical deficits, he also acknowledges that there are some things he now does better than he did before his illness. For instance, in learning to use his hands again, he feels his piano playing has improved. In his words, “I now hit the notes more accurately than before I got sick.”

Charlie would like to express his tremendous gratitude to the medical institutions where he received his care, Massachusetts General Hospital and Spaulding Hospital for Continuing Medical Care in Cambridge. In his words, “They saved my life and made it worth living.”

Originally published on WBUR Commonhealth Blog, January 17, 2014


1-888-246-2675 is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention information helpline for the West Nile Virus and is open 24 hours a day. It is also available for Spanish speakers (1-888-246-2857) as well as those who are hearing-impaired (1-866-874-2646).

Navigating Infertility

In April 2014, Sue Levy shared her story of living with Lymphangioleiomyomatosis (LAM), a rare, progressive and potentially fatal lung disease. Now, she shares her story of navigating infertility, a journey that started years before, but ultimately was informed by, her LAM diagnosis.

Sue, now 37 and married with two young daughters ages 18 months and four years, underwent six unsuccessful cycles of IVF before she and her husband decided to explore alternative ways to have children. They initially pursued domestic adoption but ultimately decided on egg donor and gestational carrier.

A couple is deemed “infertile” when they are unable to conceive after one full year of unprotected sex. In the U.S., approximately 11% of women 15-44 years of age have a difficult time getting pregnant or carrying a pregnancy to term, according to the CDC. While the use of Assisted Reproductive Technology is much more common today than it once was, the term “infertile” is still fraught with negative connotations, especially for women. Dealing with infertility can bring up feelings of shame, failure and loss.

Today, Sue can honestly say that her inability to get pregnant was a blessing, in part because her lung condition is estrogen responsive and can worsen in pregnancy, but mostly because she cannot imagine having any other children than the ones she has now. Her story reminds us that although our plans don’t always unfold as we had hoped, we can find unexpected joy and beauty along the way if we open ourselves up to the possibilities.


Mothering a Child with a Relentless Disease

In 2010, Kate, a single mom from New Hampshire, gave birth to Brook, a healthy baby girl.

Brook seemed to be developing normally and reaching all of her milestones — learning how to sit up and roll over, grasping at toys–until she was 6 months of age, at which point she started to regress. She lost skills she had already learned, and gradually, Kate noticed other things. Brook didn’t seem to respond to her name, she would fixate on lights and just stare and stare, she started dropping toys, unable to hold onto them. Eventually, after a long medical work up, Brook was diagnosed with Tay Sachs disease in 2012, and Kate was told that her daughter would most likely not live past her fourth birthday.

Today, Brook, is three years old and requires constant care. She is blind. She cannot swallow and is fed through a feeding tube. She is having near constant seizures. And she continues to deteriorate. Brook’s older brother Jake, born to a different father and now 9 years old does not suffer from the disorder.

Listen above to Kate’s story of living with and caring for her terminally ill daughter.

Tay Sachs is a fatal genetic disorder. A child is born with Tay Sachs when he or she inherits two damaged copies of the HEXA gene on chromosome 15 (one from each parent), which results in a deficiency of the Hexosaminidase A enzyme and the subsequent build up of a damaging fatty substance in brain cells. The result is a relentess, progressive loss of physical and mental functioning and eventually, death.  A person with one damaged gene and one normal gene will become a carrier with no clinical symptoms of the disease. If two carriers have children together, there is a 25% chance of giving birth to an affected child with each pregnancy.

Tay Sachs, a rare disease with an incidence of approximately 1 in 320,000 in the general population, occurs with increased frequency in certain populations, including Ashkenazi Jews, French Canadians, and Cajuns (from Louisiana). In these groups, approximately 1 in 30 individuals is a carrier, and 1 in 3,500 children will be born with the disease.

Kate, who is of French Canadian descent, had no idea she was a carrier before Brook’s diagnosis. She knew nothing about Tay Sachs, and was unaware that French Canadians are at increased risk. Though pre-conception counseling is available, Kate didn’t know this at the time, and if she had, she might have assumed that it wasn’t relevant to her.

How does a mother manage life when her child is dying? She mothers. Kate spends most of every day in her living room with Brook, an oxygen machine hissing in the background, surrounded by pill bottles, suctioning her daughter’s secretions, moistening her lips, and giving her medication to temper her seizures. Kate’s primary goal is to keep Brook as comfortable as possible in her last days, and she works very hard to achieve this. “So many people for so long would say, ‘You’re so amazing, I don’t know how you do this; This is incredible, how do you manage this,’” Kate says “I would look at them and think, ‘This is my daughter, how can I not do this?’” And every day she tries to spend as much time as possible with her older son, Jake, and to support him through the loss of his sister the best she can.

Story first appeared on WBUR’s CommonHealth blog on November 8, 2013:

Photograph: Mary White photography