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Life as a statistic


I am a victim of West Nile Virus. Two weeks after I watched two hefty-sized vials of blood being sucked out of my arm, I still don't actually know if I am infected with the actual virus or just victim to the hype surrounding the sexy-sounding venom du jour.

Here is my story.

Three weeks ago I was sitting around in the yard, having a nice time with a visiting sister and her family. Yes, the West Nile alert had already gone out, placing Colorado at the epicenter for the creepy virus. Yes, it was dusk. No, I was not wearing DEET. Yes, I got bitten by a couple mosquitoes, and woke up the next morning scratching my leg.

Yes, I was dumb. Within a few days I felt lousy, weak, listless. I ran a low-grade fever for a few days, and my head hurt. The back of my neck was sore to the touch. The glands swelled up. I felt nauseous.

My eyeballs actually ached when I looked around; it was the kind of drive-you-nuts pang like when you have a sore in your mouth and you can't help fussing with it. I couldn't help darting my eyes back and forth to see if it still hurt. It did.

I started thinking that, by gum, I am a statistic -- on the cutting edge of a novel disease. Then I convinced myself that I'd become a hypochondriac. Then I woke up with a rash that resembled exactly what Colorado's first diagnosed case of West Nile had described, looking like he had "been shot 200 times with a BB gun." I called the doctor.

I wanted my official statistical West Nile Virus number. Would I be the 181st person diagnosed in Colorado, or possibly number 888? Journalistically, the possibilities were endless. I could track down, for example, numbers 887 and 889 and put their pictures in the paper, with mine in the middle. And the marketing potential was terrific; with the number of diagnosed Colorado cases shooting through the roof, I could print up a batch of numbered T-shirts and sell them off to the first 1,000 hapless victims like me. I jotted a note to myself to call up fellow sufferer Councilwoman Margaret Radford to swap statistical numbers, secretly hoping for viral seniority.

The doctor, of course, was more interested in monitoring me to see if my condition deteriorated into life-threatening encephalitis or meningitis. At the very least, she told me, if I started to fall down for no reason, she wanted to know about it. That didn't happen. I felt lousy, but not too sick to not show up for work, where everyone was so excited about my newfound celebrity status that they kept coming by to ask me how I felt and more importantly, whether I'd gotten the official diagnosis.

Therein lies the glitch. All across Colorado, the private blood labs and the state Department of Health -- which are testing for the virus -- are so backed up that the delay in testing has reached more than two weeks in some cases.

John Pape, an epidemiologist with the state Health Department, reports that one of the biggest problems they are encountering is the high volume of blood coming in, and a shortage of the chemicals they need to test for the virus.

And, just as my doctor advised, Pape confirmed that a simple blood test doesn't always verify West Nile Virus. That's because the test itself is designed to check for antibodies that a body's immune system is using to fight the virus, not for the presence of the virus itself. The only way to really tell for sure is through a spinal fluid test, and I'm sorry, if I'm not currently dying, a spinal tap is where I draw the line.

But there was more bad news. Other viruses are out there and on the move. Pape calls them "enteroviruses" and says some of them play out with the same symptoms as West Nile. They don't carry the novelty social status, but they make you feel just as lousy, which is a shame.

The worst news of all is that when my West Nile Virus blood test comes back -- and I still firmly believe it will be positive -- Pape says the state Health Department would never, ever, personally assign me an official number of my own. In other words, I will never, ever, be Patient 888. Confidentiality and all that.

As of press time, there are 941 confirmed cases of West Nile Virus in Colorado. Too bad about my T-shirt enterprise.


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