The Heat Is Online

Debilitating Effects Suffered by Some WNV Survivors

Lives That Have Been Changed Forever From the Aftereffects of a Mosquito Bite

The New York Times, Aug. 19, 2000

It took many months, but Bob Benson says that he is fully recovered now, except for the rustiness hampering his golf game. Climbing the stairs is no longer a draining chore. Gardening is now a joy, not a hazard. And traveling means more than just shuttling between his home in Bronxville, N.Y., and the hospital: he flew to Denmark this summer for a one-month exchange program. ''I feel great,'' said Mr. Benson, 66. ''I don't think about it at all.''

For Danuta Trojanowska, though, the world remains a lonely one, limited to the interior of the New York United Hospital in Port Chester. Unable to walk, she has yet, almost a year after being admitted, to venture beyond the hospital's fifth floor. Her emotional state is still fragile, and she was recently given another room because a piece of the ceiling fell to the floor after a thunderstorm.

''If this is coming again,'' said Miss Trojanowska, 56, from her hospital bed yesterday, ''I prefer to die.''

One year ago, these Westchester residents shared a desperate and frightening plight: they were among the 62 people in the New York metropolitan region who were hospitalized after being sickened by the West Nile virus. Their roller-coaster rides to recovery mark the extremes of what the 55 survivors have endured after months of rehabilitation and mental anguish.

Most survivors have told health officials that they have not recovered their strength, and have been forced to give up activities like tennis and ballroom dancing. Others say they are still so shellshocked that they are afraid to venture outdoors, and they are unwilling to talk about what happened.

Either way, with the mosquitoes now entering their most active phase of the year and New York City bracing for the season's most intensive spraying campaign to combat the virus, the survivors' stories are all the more resonant and relevant, offering clues to the virus's long-term effects.

This year, there have been three confirmed cases of people sickened by the virus; no one has died. But the number of dead birds infected with West Nile and the number of mosquito pools testing positive is growing almost daily -- as is the list of places and times to spray pesticides.

Many of the people who were hospitalized last year because of the virus were treated in late summer. Some health officials have tried to keep tabs since then on how the victims have fared, interviewing them at six-month intervals. The next round is scheduled within the next few weeks.

Of the 44 people in New York City who were hospitalized, 32 were over 60 years old. Roughly half of those over 60 reported serious difficulties with fatigue and muscle weakness and have been unable to perform basic tasks like driving, riding the subway or doing household chores, said Sandra Mullin, a spokeswoman for the city's Department of Health.

''What we're finding,'' Ms. Mullin said, ''is that for the people who have developed encephalitis and had to be hospitalized, while they have certainly recovered from the severity of their illness, it has had some fairly devastating long-term effects.''

Some survivors are now loath to talk to health officials or reporters interested in charting their progress. Two exceptions, though, are Mr. Benson, a former salesman for I.B.M., now retired, and Miss Trojanowska, a housekeeper who emigrated from Poland.

Mr. Benson, who was hospitalized in July 1999, spent about a month at the Sound Shore Medical Center in New Rochelle. What helped him pull through, he says, was that he survived quadruple-bypass heart surgery several years ago, and had been keeping to a vigorous rehabilitation program. When he returned home, therefore, though he was extremely weak, he was ready to apply the same discipline he used for strengthening his heart muscle for the rehabilitation of his entire body.

This confirms what health experts have said: those who stay in good shape have a better chance of warding off the effects of the virus.By early this summer, Mr. Benson felt that he was fully recovered, and has since been able to resume all of his activities, indoors and out.

''I think people should respond to this as a serious thing,'' he said, ''but I also think that they shouldn't overreact.''

For example, he said, the 92nd Street Y's decision this summer to schedule a children's camp indoors in Manhattan rather than at a campground in Rockland County, was ''a little off the wall.''

For Miss Trojanowska, though, the recuperation has been much more difficult. Even now, after months of therapy, she can walk only a very short distance wearing a leg brace, and relies on friends or relatives to clip her toenails. Her troubles are also complicated by her lack of a green card, meaning she is eligible only for emergency Medicaid, which does not cover rehabilitation services.

She says she is quite lonely, but has stopped the incessant sobbing that once filled most evenings. To stay busy, she fiddles with crossword puzzles in her native Polish, flips through Polish magazines and watches too much television. Meanwhile, her sister, Barbara Glowacki, with whom she shares a house in Port Chester, has been trying to raise money to buy leg braces for her.

Miss Trojanowska misses the cherry tomatoes and tulips in her garden, she says. But she knows that whenever she leaves the hospital, life will not be the same.For years, Miss Glowacki and Miss Trojanowska welcomed numerous Polish immigrants to their house to sit on the back porch and chat. But then came the mosquito carrying the West Nile virus.

''Now, nobody comes,'' said Alicja Baldyga, a longtime friend. ''If they come, they come to the house for a few minutes. All our friends, we never sit on the porch.''