81-year-old on path to recovery after fight with West Nile virus

Dan Cherry

John Hermes of Adrian, Mich., said he has been generally healthy throughout his 81 years. He has never spent a day in the hospital, he said, and was even born at home.

So, when Hermes started feeling tired and stiff near the end of July, he said he didn’t think much of it.

“I just thought it was arthritis from too much golfing,” he said.

By July 31, Hermes’ joint pain and fatigue rapidly progressed into flu-like symptoms.

“He just didn’t feel like doing things,” his daughter Sally Oliver said.

“I remember saying I was feeling sick, and I started toward the bathroom,” Hermes said.

That is the last thing Hermes said he remembered as his battle with the mosquito-borne West Nile virus began.

Hermes has spent the past three months recovering from the virus, which has left him with, among other complications, general weakness and hearing loss.

James McCurtis Jr. from the Michigan Department of Community Health said Friday that Hermes was the first confirmed human case of West Nile Virus in Michigan this year, and that children and the elderly are susceptible to developing serious symptoms.

The department confirmed Aug. 18 that Hermes had the virus, contracted through a mosquito bite likely around the third week in July when the mosquito population was high due to increased rain activity. But because human cases are still relatively rare, the road to a diagnosis took almost three weeks.

“It looks so much like flu symptoms,” Oliver said. “People don’t know how awful this virus is.”

Hermes was admitted to Bixby Medical Center on Aug. 3 for observation on the assumption he had a bad case of influenza. Within days, however, his physical and mental condition deteriorated to the point where he was transported by ambulance to the intensive care unit at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ypsilanti, Mich. Hermes’ symptoms included delirium, agitation, tremors and high fever, and he was placed on a ventilator and had a feeding tube installed.

By Aug. 8, all seven of Hermes’ children from across the country were present at his bedside as the prognosis grew dim. The family, including his wife, Gloria, found themselves having to consider making decisions that, up until that time, they said they were not prepared to make.

Hermes’ family said they discovered the need to plan ahead for life’s unknowns and have things prepared, such as a living will, to avoid having to make critical decisions while burdened with the situation at hand.

His daughter Anne Molloy, who is part of an infectious disease study team at the University of Chicago, suggested the doctors test for West Nile virus, an illness Hermes’ daughter Mary Kucera called “underreported” because its symptoms mimic those of meningitis or influenza. In Hermes’ case, West Nile virus also opened the door for both meningitis and encephalitis to set in.

His lowest point came on Aug. 29, when, after almost a month of symptoms that placed him near death three times, he was extended “comfort care,” where food and antibiotics for secondary infections were discontinued and he was given whatever he wanted to make him comfortable. Because the illness is viral, the family said, doctors can only treat the symptoms.

Hermes said he was determined to beat the illness, however.

“Let’s move forward,” Hermes told his family that day. “I?have a faint feeling I’m going to beat this.”

At that point, Hermes began to rally, and remained at the hospital until Sept. 8, when he transferred to the Lenawee Medical Care Facility for physical rehabilitation.

Leanne Svoboda, one of Hermes’ physical therapists, said he is “making progress daily.” Her team has been working on restoring Hermes’ strength through exercises in balance, endurance and standing, as well as building up muscles in his arms, legs and trunk.

“When he first came here, he could not walk,” Svoboda said. “Now he can walk with assistance.”

Hermes has also endured some hearing loss, though it continues to improve. Through continued physical therapy, he is expected to overcome the weakness as a result of the viral attack.

“I was just lucky,” Hermes said. “The prayers, cards and support from the community have helped.”

Hermes’ family credits his survival in part to being generally healthy in the first place.

“The doctors had said if he can survive the attacks, he will live,” Oliver said.

His children also stressed the need to use mosquito repellant and to know the symptoms of West Nile virus so others can be treated early if stricken. Oliver added that because of her family’s experience, she wants to encourage communities to consider spraying for mosquitoes to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

As for Hermes, he said he is maintaining a positive outlook on his road to recovery, crediting the technicians and staff at the hospitals and LMCF for being “efficient, caring and a godsend.” He said he is looking ahead to his completion of physical therapy and his planned release from LMCF by Christmas.

Hermes said he wants to eventually get back outside in his yard and on the golf course, with a healthy application of mosquito repellant.

“Let’s move forward,” Hermes said.

Daily Telegram