Calgary woman contracts hantavirus, lives to tell tale

DEADLY DUST Cathy was infected after sweeping the floor near some firewood 
contaminated with mouse feces and urine

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One week, Cathy was a vibrant and healthy wife, mother and music teacher. The next, she was fighting for her life in a Calgary hospital, wondering whether she’d see her son’s next birthday.

Cathy K. (her last name withheld by request) was exposed to hantavirus around Halloween of 2002, when she was 44 years old. She, her husband, and their five-year-old son were living on an acreage just seven kilometres east of Calgary. One day, her husband discovered a mouse nest while rearranging the woodpile just outside the patio doors, which prompted her to say, “Oh great, now we’re all going to get hantavirus and die.”

Some of the wood was later brought into their home, and when Cathy swept the area next to where it was stacked, she believes she inhaled dry mouse feces and urine which became airborne.

On a Friday three weeks later, she began to feel some flu symptoms, and called in sick to work. On Saturday, she still felt ill, but felt well enough to attend a family gathering the following day. She missed work again on Monday, recovered enough to return to work on Tuesday, but then took a turn for the worse and stayed home for the rest of the week.

“On Saturday morning, I got up and I said my destination was the doctor, or the hospital,” she said. “We just have to go. I tried to shower and I was out of breath. I was really weak.”

Cathy said it never occurred to her to go to the doctor earlier because she assumed it was just the flu. In retrospect, she said she believes her falling blood oxygen levels were impairing her judgment and ability to evaluate how sick she truly was. She wasn’t coughing, and didn’t notice any shortness of breath until that Saturday, but the ongoing weakness was a symptom of hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS).

Plummeting blood pressure

When the virus invades the body, the immune system responds by attacking certain cells that harbour it. The internal structure of the cells is damaged and they leak fluid. This causes the lungs to slowly fill with fluid, restricting oxygen intake, and can also cause a dangerous drop in blood pressure. In other words, Cathy was slowly drowning in her own fluids.

Unaware of how serious her condition was, Cathy opted for a medical clinic instead of a hospital.

“When I got to the clinic, I laid down on the floor,” she said. “I’m a teacher, I’m a professional — I don’t go into someone’s office and lay on their floor in front of their reception desk.”

The alarmed receptionist took her to the doctor right away.

“I think he thought I was faking it. He tried to take my blood pressure and I had no reading. It was not measurable,” she said.

The doctor told Cathy to go home and take some Tylenol.

“And then I said I’d been throwing up water, and it saved my life. He said to go immediately to the ER.”

Cathy’s husband rushed her to Rockyview Hospital. Too weak to sit up, she laid down in the back of the van. By the time she arrived, she couldn’t walk.

She was admitted and treated with oxygen, which initially helped. But even with the oxygen therapy, her blood gas levels continued to worsen and she was moved to the ICU in the middle of the night.

“I looked up and there must have been seven people around me — respiratory techs, nurses and doctors — and then I heard them say that if I thrashed, they’d hold me down.”

She realized the medical team was about to intubate her (inserting a tube to provide rapid respiratory assistance). That was her last memory before entering a three-day drug-induced coma.

In total, Cathy spent 13 days in the hospital. Had she not received medical attention when she did, she would have been dead within hours. She credits her survival to an exceptional medical team and plenty of prayer.

A small woman to begin with, she was only 90 pounds after leaving hospital. But unlike many others who experience scarring in their lungs, she was lucky and doesn’t suffer from the same debilitating symptoms other survivors must cope with.

The experience was life changing, and humbling. Cathy’s faith is stronger now, and she said she feels as though she was spared.

“I feel it was a miracle.”

Cathy and her family have since moved back to the city, and she continues to work as a music teacher. She urges people not to gamble with hantavirus.

“You must take this seriously… Farmers are healthy, strapping men, but this can knock them down and kill them. It can take their lives.”

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