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Long road back from West Nile

Brandon man paralyzed for six months due to virus

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John Burnett was in a medically induced coma for two weeks last August after his son found him collapsed and delirious in his Brandon apartment.

The normally healthy 53-year-old had contracted a severe case of West Nile virus.

For six months after his collapse, Burnett breathed with the help of a ventilator while lying paralyzed in the intensive care unit at Brandon Regional Health Centre.

Burnett slowly began to regain some movement and speech, but even now -- more than 10 months later -- he is fed by a tube to his stomach because he doesn't have control of the muscles in his mouth.

His speech is slurred and muffled, and he can't walk or move by himself.

"I remember being asleep for a very long time, and then waking up," said Burnett, who doesn't remember much from his time in the hospital aside from what his sisters, Barb Doherty and Debbie Innes, have told him. "I remember being in my apartment, dizzy, pain and the ambulance. And then I don't know."

Burnett visited the hospital twice before he collapsed. First, he was diagnosed with stomach symptoms and nausea, and then a week later was told he had the symptoms of dehydration. It wasn't until after he was in the hospital for two weeks that a spinal tap showed he had West Nile.

It took Burnett a few minutes to describe what it feels like knowing what caused his sickness.

'It's crazy and scary. I don't want to go outside anymore' -- John Burnett

"It's crazy and scary. I don't want to go outside anymore," he said. "You're just buggered and don't understand what's going on. I still don't know what's going on; there's not a lot of answers out there."

If Burnett speaks for a longer period of time, his mouth goes dry and he needs to be spoon-fed ice chips.

"He can have four at a time," Doherty said as Innes spooned ice into Burnett's mouth.

"I'm all grown up now," he joked.

His humour and positive attitude are what Doherty believes has helped Burnett improve his condition over the past few months.

"His strength and courage amaze me every day," she said. "He's the same old John, you know. He makes the same jokes that he would (if he wasn't in the hospital)."

Doherty works as a nurse at the hospital and usually visits with her brother every day.

"Now he gets the staff to dial the phone and he says, 'Hey, when are you coming?' " she said, laughing.

When Burnett was in his initial coma, she knew from experience that the things weren't looking good.

"Usually there are reflexes or some movement. But there was nothing," she said. "When you see the devastation, it's scary."

Doherty remembers when her brother "woke up" and started to make progress. Around six weeks after being admitted he could slowly wiggle the fingers on his right hand, she said.

"I knew he was in there," Doherty said. "It's been a lot of small improvements. He's made a lot of progress -- it's hard, but it's good."

The virus is still relatively new to Manitoba, detected in birds, horses and mosquitoes in July 2002. It is carried mainly by Culex mosquitos, which are less common than other types.

Most cases of West Nile are mild, with patients suffering flu-like symptoms for a couple days or weeks. Only about one in 150 cases are as severe as Burnett's.

The most severe outburst of West Nile in the province was in 2007, when there were 587 reported cases of the disease. That year, four Manitobans died of the virus.

Part of Burnett's positivity comes from hearing about other people who have survived the virus. One man in Winnipeg was in a coma for a week last year after being infected with the virus, and then woke up and was able to leave.

Burnett thinks he was infected with West Nile while he was biking without wearing a shirt near Boissevain.

"I bought my ticket, now I'm just along for the ride and (I'll) see where it goes," he said.

Even though he said he is scared of going outside and being infected again, he said hunting, snowmobiling and biking are priority No. 1 for when he's recovered.

But right now it's a waiting game.

During his time in hospital, Burnett developed an ulcer in his back -- one that was eventually invaded by a superbug -- leaving him in isolation and postponing his rehabilitation therapy.

"He was going to go to rehabilitation and be with other patients three weeks ago, and then was told he wouldn't be able to," Doherty said. "He needs that interaction. He needs to start feeling like a human being again."

Having visitors is a welcome distraction for Burnett. Doherty hopes that some of her brother's friends, who she wasn't sure how to reach or who might not know what happened to Burnett, might see this article and pay him a visit.

Once he recovers from the superbug, Burnett will be able to go to rehabilitation and continue his recovery.


-- Brandon Sun

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 4, 2013 A4

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