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Frank Gray

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Take it from Darla, this West Nile is worth fearing


There are good ways to get your name in the paper and bad ways.

Darla Keller’s record isn’t good.

Keller got her name in the paper last month after a storm caused a giant crack in the trunk of a beloved 200-year-old oak tree in her yard, leaving Keller distraught and facing a huge bill for removing the tree.

Well, Keller is back in the news, this time because she just got out of the hospital after almost dying from West Nile virus.

Keller is willing to talk about her ordeal, but not because she wants publicity. She says she wants people to know that West Nile virus is nothing to be trifled with. It is very real, it’s here, and it can kill you.

The ordeal for Keller started weeks ago. She remembers being bitten by a mosquito in a spot on her back that she couldn’t reach to scratch. Later she developed a rash, “like a million small raised spots,” from her ankles to above her chin.

She developed a fever, her eyes became bloodshot and she would see sparks flying in her eyes. Eventually her neck would be boiling hot while her hands and feet would be cold. She became nauseated and got terrible headaches, like someone pounding her head over and over with a hammer, she said.

Eventually, she became almost unable to walk and lost the vision in one eye.

It wasn’t until about two weeks ago that Keller finally called a friend and asked for a ride to the hospital.

Keller, who didn’t get out of the hospital until this week, says doctors have told her she had a combination of viral meningitis and West Nile and that she was within hours of death by the time she made it to the hospital.

When she learned she had West Nile, she said: “I was in shock. I couldn’t believe it. That’s something that happens somewhere else to someone else.”

Today, Keller suffers from what might be permanent neurological damage. Her body twitches, and she is having to learn how to walk again.

Now, when she goes into her yard, which is crowded with flowers and plants, she finds herself looking for anything that might be holding water where mosquitoes might be able to breed. She wants to warn others “Bring your arsenal,” insect repellant, when they go outside.

Though Keller said her doctors say the West Nile diagnosis is absolute, the Fort Wayne-Allen County Department of Health said there have been no confirmed cases of West Nile virus in Allen County so far this year.

“There are tests that have to be run before the state officially makes it West Nile,” said John Silcox, director of communications for the Fort Wayne-Allen County Department of Health.

However, the state health department issued a release Wednesday saying there had been one case confirmed in Allen County.

The local health department has trapped mosquitoes and found some that are carrying the West Nile virus, but not necessarily more than have been found in the past.

Silcox said there is enough of a risk that people should take precautions.

Dave Fiess is director of vector control and environmental services for the health department. The mosquitoes that carry the virus are most active at dawn and dusk and generally feed on roosting birds, he said. If no birds are around, though, they will bite humans.

The mosquitoes don’t travel far, only half a mile to a mile.

“They get into little bodies of water, even an ashtray” and breed, Fiess said. “They only need a quarter of an inch of water to go through their life cycle, so even a bottle cap on a patio” is enough for them to breed.

The disease doesn’t affect everyone the same. About 80 percent of people who are bitten by an infected mosquito display no symptoms. About 20 percent will get fever, headache, rashes and even nausea.

Only 1 in 150 get seriously ill, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the description of symptoms sounds as though it could have been written by Keller.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.