Ronald Wicht has been a very active outdoorsmen most of his life.
From deer and elk hunting, to chopping wood and performing farm work, he lives to be outside. For the past five years he’d been putting in for a bear tag to hunt on his property north of Aldrich. On his fifth year, in 2018, he had gained enough preference points to earn a bear tag. The excitement was mounting as Wicht began baiting and setting up his hunting spots for a big Northwoods bruin.
Just days before the opener, however, Wicht was bit. Not by a black bear, but by a tiny mosquito, no bigger than a pea. Within a couple days, Wicht felt sick and started to speak gibberish, his wife Kathy said. He was taken to Lakewood Health System in Staples with a high fever and acting very confused. Wicht’s physician, Dr. Ryan Kroll ordered a brain scan, CT scan and lumbar puncture. Kathy said the brain scan showed encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain. He was sent by ambulance to St. Cloud Hospital to the neuroscience floor.
Now unable to raise his arms, his confusion continued. Another lumbar puncture was performed and he went into respiratory distress. He had to be intubated and rushed to ICU. Eventually a trach was put in along with feeding tube. The next day, Ronald was diagnosed with West Nile virus.
“The lumbar puncture was key to diagnosis,” Kathy, a Verndale graduate, said.
Ronald said while he had been on antibiotics, once they determined it was West Nile virus, he was taken off and simply given Tylenol for his fever.
For a time, Ronald was covered in ice packs to try to keep his temperature down.
“I was just devastated,” Kathy said of seeing her once active husband on the edge of life.
“I don’t remember any of that,” Ronald said, now a year since the encounter.
He remained in ICU for four weeks and was then transferred to Regency Hospital in Golden Valley. It was there, about six weeks after he became ill that he finally woke up out of his comatose state and saw his brother and sister in law.
The first thing he said was, “What the hell happened?”
He couldn’t remember anything, not even being sick. But once he was told what happened, saw how much weight he had lost, and realized his lack of motion, the seriousness of it all started to sink in.
“It was horrible,” he said. The good life of retirement and enjoying time a field looked to be out of the picture.
He would be hospitalized for four months and eventually began a physical therapy regimen to start to make his way back. He was able to return home December 28, “ a glorious day,” as Kathy puts it.
It was a year on Aug. 28 since Ronald was hospitalized. He said in July that he had just stopped physical therapy realizing that he was now able to get around on most flat surfaces without the use of a cane. He’s been going on dog walks with his new pup Bernie, a mini Bernedoodle (miniature poodle/Bernese mix. The dog acts as a therapy dog of sorts keeping him on the move including regular rides on the side-by-side.
He was busily cleaning his garage Friday, July 26, in preparation for a "celebrating life" party that Sunday, which was also his 73rd birthday. Over 50 friends came to celebrate life with him.
“It made me appreciate each day a little more,” he said of surviving the mosquito bite. “I’m lucky to be here.”
Wicht still struggles with breathing and has to be on oxygen at night, but, he said he’s almost out of the woods. After losing 60 pounds during his hospital stay, he has regained about 20 pounds and said he could add some more as he continues to strengthen.
Considering his first go at walking was seven steps, he feels a much stronger man now. He still struggles with certain tasks including raising a firearm. While he can hold a gun in place, he still struggles to lower his head down to see through the sites. He mentioned he was working on options for sites that might work for him and is still hopeful that by this coming deer season, he’ll be back on the hunt. He’s also looking forward to one day riding motorcycle again. His Harley Davidson has been missing the road while he recovers.
“It’s just a slow, slow process,” Ronald said. “It isn’t a daily (improvement), it’s a weekly (improvement). It’s tiny, little steps.”
The couple are thankful for all the help they received while Ronald was recovering. Both Ronald and his wife now share a similar message with everyone.
“Repellent is a must for hunters and outdoor people,” Kathy said.
While Ron didn’t like to use spray before because of the smell, he said he’s not concerned about the smell anymore.
“We spray ourselves like crazy,” Ron, a Staples graduate, said. “People have to protect themselves.”
Ron retired seven years ago and put in for a bear tag again this year. He said he expects he’ll have to put in for five years again before he can expect to get another chance at a hunt.
The spread of West Nile
A part of the puzzling and alarming side of all this is that West Nile virus has a five to 10 day incubation period. Ronald hadn’t gone anywhere outside of the local area, so the virus came from his own property, possibly on a tubing trip down the river near their property.
West Nile virus (WNV) is a mosquito borne virus that can cause encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) in some people, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. This virus usually circulates between mosquitoes and birds in Africa and Europe. However, in 1999 an outbreak of West Nile encephalitis was reported in New York City. Since then, the virus has spread to 48 states and the District of Columbia.
WNV was found in Minnesota in 2002 and will remain a public health concern in the foreseeable future, the health department states. Fortunately, most people who are bitten by infected mosquitoes will experience either no symptoms or mild illness.
By the numbers
In 2018, 63 WNV disease cases were reported in Minnesota, slightly more than the median number of cases per year (49) from 2012 to 2017. Here's more data provided by the Minnesota Department of Health.
39 (62%) cases were hospitalized and 35 (56%) cases had a severe illness affecting the central nervous system (encephalitis or meningitis), including two fatalities in older adults.
44 (70%) cases were male.
Median age was 62 years (range, 21 to 91 years).
21 WNV-positive blood donors who did not have any symptoms of illness were also identified.