Worse than its bite: West Nile overturns life
Aspen, CO Colorado
GREELEY ” Before the disease, before the two mosquito bites, Barry Backlund was your average retiree.
He was getting a part-time job, the basement of his home was being refinished, he had a workshop just off the garage.
Today, almost two years later, Backlund hasn’t been able to see the new basement and has never worked in his workshop. West Nile changed his life, put him in the hospital for a year and took away his ability to walk.
But, like the strong man he is, Backlund is fighting his way back.
After he was bitten by the two mosquitoes inside his home in southwest Greeley, he began to feel ill.
“I thought it was the flu,” he says now. “It was on Aug. 20, 2006, on my 59th birthday, and nine days after the mosquito bites, that I began to get sick.”
Backlund grew up in Greeley, graduated from Greeley High School in 1965, went to college in Trinidad where he met his wife-to-be, Gail. He worked as a police officer in California, retiring four years ago as a police commander ” assistant to the chief ” in San Jacinto, Calif. After retirement, the couple moved back to Greeley to be near family.
But it was the West Nile virus that changed their lives completely.
“I kept getting weaker and weaker,” Backlund recalls now, “until Gail made me go to Urgent Care one weekend. They said it was West Nile.”
He went home, but he continued to get weaker, until he couldn’t walk. His wife and daughter literally carried him to the car and took him to a doctor. The doctor ordered an ambulance, which took him to the hospital.
Because of their health insurance, they were taken to Good Samaritan Hospital in Lafayette, where he spent 30 days in intensive care and in a drug-induced coma. Doctors told him he also had encephalitis and meningitis, requiring a breathing tube and a feeding tube.
Gail Backlund made constant trips from Greeley to Lafayette to be with her husband, to be told by the doctors that he wasn’t improving.
“On Sept. 29,” Gail Backlund said, “the doctor called and told me I’d better come to the hospital right away because he might not make it through the day.”
It was the first of several similar calls during the next few months for Gail. “But he’s a fighter,” she says, tears making her eyes shine. “At about 8 o’clock that night, the doctor told me he was getting better.”
But for the next month ” October 2006 ” the disease took a toll. In a coma, Barry went through blood transfusions, exploratory surgeries, hospital transfers. Gail got more warnings from doctors that her husband “might not make it.”
At one point, he lost movement in his right arm, but his left arm kept flailing around, while he was in a coma. They finally had to strap the left arm down to prevent him from injuring himself.
But Barry slowly began to improve. He can remember some things about
Thanksgiving 2006, when he was coming out of the coma, but there are still empty spaces ” times and events he can’t remember.
He was completely out of the coma by Christmas, but he would remain in hospitals for another nine months.
During that year, Barry was in nine different hospitals, each specializing in helping certain areas of his recovery.
He was finally able to go home on Aug. 28, 2007 ” exactly one year after he was first admitted to a hospital.
Today he is home, in a wheelchair, but has use of his arms again. He can feel his legs, but can’t move them. If they can get stronger, he might be able to make it down the outside sidewalk to see the basement.
“Of course, I’ve asked several times, ‘Why me?”‘ Barry said. “But there’s really no answer to that.”
He believes the disease hit him hard because he is a diabetic and his immune system was already weakened. He’s also participating in a University of Texas study to determine if genetics could play a role in how hard West Nile hits some people.
Gail Backlund’s life has revolved around her husband for the past two years, as she drove to the hospitals, while working her job at Big Lots. The company arranged her schedule so she could care for Barry, so she’s at home when he needs her.
When he’s home alone, Barry reads, watches television, works on the computer.
Except for his legs, his life is returning to normal.
And, he has hope. “I can see myself getting stronger,” he says. “My physical therapist said I have to keep working, but I can get better.”
To prove it, Barry focuses on his right leg, and lifts the toe of his shoe up about an inch.
For now, that small, little movement is a strong example of hope.
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