LOVELAND, Colo. — Colorado is experiencing the worst outbreak of West Nile virus (WNV) in the country this summer.
According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, 460 people have been affected by the virus. The state has reported 21 deaths and 236 people with neurologic symptoms due to an infection.
UCHealth reports the majority of people who contract West Nile virus do not have any symptoms, or they are so mild that they are not registered as an illness. Around 20% of people with the virus experience symptoms like fatigue, fever, headaches, joint pain, rashes and stomach issues.
Approximately 1% of WNV cases are considered neuroinvasive. Lisa Montez falls into that category.
Montez was visiting family in Fort Collins last summer when they were "eaten alive" by mosquitoes. She did not think much of it at the time — since it is a fairly normal occurrence in Colorado — and drove back to her Washington home.
“I started to see a little bit of a rash, and it just progressed from there," Montez said.
Montez went to a doctor in Washington when the rash spread all over her body.
“My primary care doctor said, 'OK, we're just going to throw the kitchen sink at you. And we're going to test you for absolutely everything and anything,'” Montez remembered. “The last test result that we got in was the positive West Nile."
At first, Montez was relieved to learn what was happening. Quickly, she found out how devastating the virus can be.
“There's a lot of information online about it, but it's extremely generic. It just doesn't paint a very serious picture of it," Montez said. “I wish I had known more.”
Montez said West Nile virus is not very common in Washington, so she and her family moved back to Colorado for medical care.
“I've heard a couple of times that had I had the appropriate medical care early on, I probably wouldn't be in the position I'm in now," said Montez, who is grateful for the care she received in Colorado. “It was a long journey.”
Her journey included severe symptoms, like extreme fatigue, headaches or migraines, and problems with her vision and balance.
“I could not help my family at all take care of anything. My husband was doing all of the housework, taking care of our child. I wasn't able to work. It was just completely debilitating for several weeks. And it felt like every day it got worse, and it didn't get better," Montez explained. “I started to see additional symptoms where I was losing my balance. There were times that, you know, I would just be standing at the kitchen counter and almost fall over backwards. It was just completely bizarre.”
Montez learned the virus had attacked her vestibular system, which was throwing off her balance. She was unable to drive, work, and sometimes get out of the bed in the morning.
“It just kind of felt like a new thing every month popped up," said Montez. “I'm still in occupational therapy. I spent eight months in vestibular rehab trying to fix my balance system. I didn't actually start driving again until June of this year.”
Montez said her condition started to improve this spring.
“There's just a lot of residual symptoms and things that we can't really explain or anticipate. And so it is a constant ongoing battle of trying to understand, what is my body doing? How is this affecting my body? I actually ended up in the emergency room a couple of weeks ago, and it was an episode with my breathing," Montez said. “It's very unknown, kind of what the future holds and what the symptoms are going to be.”
Despite any fears about the future, Montez can do many of the things she loves again, like go to the park with her young daughter.
“I'm a unique case where what happened to me shouldn't have happened. It kind of made me realize that I'm not invincible," said Montez. “It changed my entire life, and it's something I never, ever would have thought would have happened to me. And yet it did.”
Montez hopes her story raises awareness about West Nile virus, because knowledge is power when it comes to health.
To learn more about the virus, click here.