Viral Lessons: What Paralysis Taught Me About Preparedness and Response

Posted on by Devin Lenz

This is an enlarged view of a female Culex quinquefasciatus mosquito that had landed upon the skin of a human host, and was extracting its blood meal through its needle sharp proboscis. You’re able to see from this right anterior-oblique view, her enlarged, red-colored abdomen, as it became distended with blood. C. quinquefasciatus is known as one of the many arthropodal vectors responsible for spreading the arboviral encephalitis, West Nile virus (WNV), to human beings through their bite.Sometime in mid-August of 2010, I was bitten by a mosquito here in Decatur, Georgia. Normally, that’s not something worth mentioning, but in this instance the mosquito that bit me was carrying a virus, and that bite changed my life.

The mosquito that bit me was carrying West Nile virus (WNV). Within a few days I was diagnosed with WNV poliomyelitis—a polio-like syndrome that’s caused by severe swelling in the central nervous system. It paralyzed me from the waist down.

It was touch and go there for a while. I spent twelve weeks–five of those on a ventilator—in three different hospitals. My final stop was Atlanta’s Shepherd Center, where they specialize in rehabilitating patients with spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries.

West Nile: What are the Chances?

Most people infected with WNV are none the wiser. CDC estimates that 8 out of 10 people with WNV do not develop any symptoms. [i] That’s an 8 in 10 chance that you won’t get sick at all if you are infected.

About 1 in 5 people who are infected come down with a fever and other symptoms, such as headache, body aches, joint pains, vomiting, diarrhea, or rash, that they fully recover from.

Only a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of people infected with WNV get very sick. About 1 in 150 people experience severe, neurological illnesses, which typically manifests as meningitis inflammation of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord), encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), or acute flaccid paralysis (in my case, weakness of the muscles that help me breathe).[ii] That’s a little over half of one percent—chance that you’ll get as sick as I did.

Happy Halloween

The Shepherd Center’s holistic approach to disabled patient care involves teaching new wheelchair users how to be happy, have fun, and find happiness in what they have! In practice, that meant parading through the hallways for Halloween.

I loved Halloween growing up, but I wasn’t in the mood. If it was possible, hearing the plans for parade made me even less enthusiastic.

The therapists on my floor decided on a Wizard of Oz theme for our wing, and that I would play the Scarecrow. I went along with it, begrudgingly at first. I let them stuff my shirt with hay and plop a floppy hat on my head. The costume felt like an itchy, sweaty form of torture.

I see now that the parade was a distraction from my disability. Laughing with and even at one another are important parts of life. When you’re newly disabled, it helps to be shown that it’s still possible to have a good time even if you’re in a wheelchair.

What I’m Trying to Say is …

Devin, kids

What’s the point of my story? It’s not to make you feel bad for me or to scare you into wearing insect repellent; although, that wouldn’t be such a bad outcome. The point that I’m trying to make is twofold. Wearing insect repellent could have prevented me from catching West Nile virus, but the fact that I almost died from it was just as much of a fluke as anything else.

When I share my story with people, they often recoil in shock or say, “I’m so sorry that this happened to you.” My response is always the same. I tell them not to be sorry. My story is one of survival rather than loss. My experience taught me to be more vigilant in terms of preparedness, but also to be resourceful in my mental and emotional responses. Life is really is whatever we chose to make it. Do your best. Try to be prepared for the unexpected and make the most of what you have at your disposal.

Protect Yourself from Mosquitoes: Fight the Bite!

Bug spray

The best way to avoid getting any mosquito-borne virus is to avoid getting bitten by mosquitoes. Prepare your health to “Fight the Bite” after a major disaster, such as a hurricane, and throughout mosquito season. Here are some steps you can take to prepare and protect your health:

  • In addition to personal health products such as water purification tablets, hand sanitizer and sunscreen, include an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered insect repellent in your emergency supplies kit.
  • Research your EPA-registered insect repellent options. Find an insect repellent that meets your needs and contains one of the following active ingredients: DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus, para-menthane-diol, or 2-undecanone.
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and pants. Treat your clothing and gear, including boots, socks, and pants, with 0.5% permethrin.
  • Remove standing water from around the house. Empty, turn over, cover, or throw out any items that hold water like tires, buckets, planters, toys, pools, birdbaths, flower pots, or trash containers once a week.


Thanks in advance for your questions and comments on this Public Health Matters post. Please note that the CDC does not give personal medical advice. If you are concerned you have a disease or condition, talk to your doctor.

Have a question for CDC? CDC-INFO ( offers live agents by phone and email to help you find the latest, reliable, and science-based health information on more than 750 health topics.




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4 comments on “Viral Lessons: What Paralysis Taught Me About Preparedness and Response”

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

    I enjoyed your article and learned a great deal. I am sending the EPA and CDC web links to everyone on my contact list. It is very good to find a positive, informative and level headed account from a fellow health-warrior.
    Happy Halloween!

    The information in this blog gave a great background into the importance of prepared readiness. It gave insight on how a simple bug bite can cause a cascade of catastrophic health conditions. I like how the reader is able to take this information and apply it to their everyday life style. Primary prevention is important in so many ways. By doing things such as keeping an EPA-Insect repellent close by, and empty stagnant water from items weekly you can prevent yourself from potentially catching a fatal virus from an insect.

    From a nurses perspective who is very allergic to mosquitoes, it is always important to prevent an illness so we do not have to treat the illness. If finding the right bug spray what a person needs to do to prevent them from getting bug bites then that is important. When I get bit by a mosquito, the spot swells up about 10 times the size it should! When I am not prepared and have no bug spray or long clothes I must go inside or I will swell up on my entire body. Mosquitoes can be deadly if the do infect you with the virus! This information is very important for anyone who needs to know what to do to prevent getting bit!

    Thank you for sharing your important story. I also had a serious illness due to West Nile, specifically, meningitis. The symptoms were insidious and started about 2 weeks after I had travelled to Hawaii and received DOZENS of mosquito bites there while hiking. We were in a very tropical area and had forgotten the “bug juice” (!). At that time, HI had no reported cases of West Nile, no doubt in part because travelers are diagnoses AFTER they return home…The point being make no assumptions about risk based upon the reported incidence in an area! Anyway, the acute illness lasted about a month, followed by several weeks of convalescence and years of rehabbing my brain back from the sequelae. I am now COMPULSIVE about carrying and using “bug juice”!

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Page last reviewed: June 1, 2020
Page last updated: June 1, 2020