Virus slows artist’s inspiration
EAGLE – When Celine Krueger and husband Ben moved into their dream home along the Eagle River in the late 1990s, they were thrilled. The country-barn style home in a rural subdivision several miles east of Eagle is, in the couple’s eyes, a little patch of wilderness in the midst of civilization. Deer, elk, eagles and a couple of bear are frequent visitors – along with mice.And what those furry, white-bellied deer mice – cartoon-adorable to some, and mere rodents to others – left behind this spring was not welcome – hantavirus. A brush with the viral infection put Celine in a frightening struggle for her life and facing a long, frustrating rehabilitation.Seven months later, Krueger is finally beginning to feel normal again – almost.38 percent fatal
Hantavirus is a relatively rare, but potentially fatal virus. Transmitted mainly by infected deer mice in Colorado, humans get the disease through contact with droppings. When people clean up the droppings or the materials mice have used to create nests, the virus can become airborne and inhaled. Colorado has had 49 reported cases since 1993, and 11 this year alone.”It’s been a record year,” says John Pape, an epidemiologist with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.Krueger’s illness was the first documented case in Eagle County this year – but not the only one in the county’s history. John Pap said there were a cases of hantavirus in the county in 2003 and 1998.Krueger said she’s certain she got the virus last May, when she and husband Ben were sweeping mice droppings out of their basement and pantry. A diabetic, Krueger believes her already compromised immune system is the reason she caught the disease and her husband did not.Most people come down with symptoms in one to six weeks after being exposed. But Krueger was hospitalized with a very grim prognosis after just a few days. Hantavirus attacks the pulmonary system, often causing respiratory failure and heart failure.Of the 335 cases reported in Colorado between 1993 and March of 2003, 38 percent were fatal. The good news, said Dr. Drew Werner of the Eagle Valley Medical Center, is that “the people who do recover usually have a complete recovery.”
Hard to identifyThe early symptoms of hantavirus mimic many other illnesses, making the disease difficult to identify. Hantavirus patients may experience fatigue, fevers, muscle aches, headaches, dizziness, chills, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain. A cough can often develop into shortness of breath and fluid fills up the lungs and chest cavities, leading to respiratory and heart failure. Krueger said she started feeling a general sense of malaise and after feeling some discomfort around her heart in the middle of the night, she went to the emergency room at the Vail Valley Medical Center. The hospital kept her overnight and ran tests, but all were negative and she was sent home. Werner said people suffering hantavirus at first appear no sicker than flu patients. “These people are critically, critically ill,” Werner said. “The virus can rapidly go from flu-like into pulmonary and cardiac failure, often in 24 hours.” After returning home from the hospital, Krueger had muscles aches and couldn’t say awake. By the time she went to see Werner at the Eagle Valley Medical Center, she was having problems breathing. Back at Vail Valley Medical Center, she was quickly put on a respirator and tubes were inserted into her chest to drain the fluid that was rapidly collecting in her lungs and chest cavity.
“They really saved my life,” said Krueger , who spent five days in intensive care. One night, the hospital staff told her family she only had a 20 percent chance to live. A friend contacted a local priest to come administer last rites, and her son who lives in California flew home with his family to be by her side, but, she said, the doctors still didn’t know what was wrong.She was taken to a hospital in Denver, where a blood test showed she had hantavirus.No easy cureAll doctors can do for most hantavirus patients is treat the symptoms and monitor body functions. When Krueger finally was sent home after seven days in intensive care in Denver, she needed an oxygen tank and a walker. She used the oxygen 24 hours a day during the first several weeks and needed a walker for two months.”When I came home, I was a little depressed,” she said. “The main thing I tried to think about is that I had to get better – but, I didn’t really think I would.”
An artist for 20 years, Krueger said she found it difficult to even think of picking up a brush. The virus had not only nearly killed her, it threatened her very way of life, she said.But Krueger said she is nearly back to normal. She still uses oxygen at night, her stamina has decreased, her balance is still off and her thoughts seem come more slowly than they used to, she said. “I don’t get much done. I am very tired by the evening,” she said. “I just feel poorly, and I can’t really say why.”The Kruegers still love their house on the river, and have no intention of moving. But, they are more careful now. And Krueger recently took an art class in Denver to jump-start the creative juices again and she has an art show scheduled at the Vail Library in early February, she said. While she was still recovering, the house was thoroughly sprayed and sealed against pests. They haven’t seen any mice. “There’s no sign of them,” Krueger said.