Hantavirus cases have happy endings decade apart

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Hantavirus may not be a very common disease.
But it can be deadly.
Joe Merriam almost found that out the hard way.
Merriam’s daughter, Annie, contracted the disease in 1999, during the summer before her senior year at Meeker High School. She nearly died.
If not for quick action taken by doctors, Annie would not have survived.
“They put her on a Learjet to fly her to a hospital in Albuquerque (New Mexico),” Merriam said. “Fifteen minutes out, she was having trouble. They had to give her a shot in the heart to keep her going. After we arrived at the hospital, they said if we had been five minutes later, we wouldn’t have had our daughter.”
Even after being transported to the University of New Mexico Hospital, Annie’s condition was life threatening.
“Boy, I tell you, there were probably three days where it was touch and go,” Joe Merriam said.
Merriam reflected on his daughter’s experience after learning about an 18-year-old from Rangely who was recently diagnosed with hantavirus, though his case turned out not to be as serious.
“Everybody is different,” Merriam said. “A lot of older people get it, but they just think they have a cold and they live through it. … Young people and athletes, it can just hammer the hell out of them. That’s what’s so lucky about this younger kid in Rangely.”
Annie fell ill while working at a summer job where she cleaned camps in the Little Hills area in Piceance Creek.
“She cleaned out some summer camp trailers,” her father said. “That’s where everybody speculated she got it. The infectious disease people picked up enough signs when they got there to say that it was there (where Annie contracted the potentially deadly hantavirus).”
Hantavirus can be contracted when people come into contact with the urine, saliva or droppings of infected rodents. Deer mice are the primary carriers of the disease.
Doctors in Meeker first suspected Annie may have had hantavirus, Merriam said. They then sent her on to St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction.
“There were a lot of warnings out (about hantavirus),” he said. “Without a test, you couldn’t absolutely tell, but they were pretty damn sure (Annie had contracted hantavirus). They would have bet the farm on it.
“The hospitals — all three of them — worked really good together,” he said.
Doctors in Grand Junction recommended Merriam’s daughter be transferred to Albuquerque.
“She was the fourth hantavirus patient in Grand Junction, and they had lost all three,” Merriam said. “They were nervous as hell. They were very good, very professional and very upfront with us, but they just knew they couldn’t handle it. When they sit there and tell you if you stay here, you’ll wake up in the morning and your daughter won’t be here, that’s a sobering thought. So we elected to go to Albuquerque.”
Annie spent nearly two weeks at the hospital in Albuquerque, where for part of that time she was hooked up to an ECMO machine, which is used on patients whose heart and lungs aren’t functioning normally on their own.
“They circulate your blood all the time, is what they do,” Joe Merriam said. “ECMO is a blood-thinning machine. It thins it down just thinner than water to pump (blood) through the body. She (Annie) had had trouble breathing. The reason you have trouble breathing is your lungs are filling up with water. When they X-rayed her lungs, it was just a clouded mess. … They were pulling four gallons of water off her lungs in 24 hours at the peak.
“They had to pump her full of fluids to keep that blood flowing,” Merriam said. “At the highest point, she weighed 280 pounds. She was just like a balloon laying there.”
Annie had been an athlete, so she was in top physical shape, which ironically, worked against her body fighting the disease in some ways, her father said.
“They’re in such good shape, (the disease) attacks their lungs,” Joe Merriam said of young people and athletes who contract the disease. “The reason is your body circulates so well and is so efficient … it can spread so fast, because your body is in such good shape.”
Even after returning home from the hospital, it took awhile for Annie to get back on her feet.
“We brought her home in a wheelchair,” her father said. “Then she went from a walker to a cane, and then she started walking.”
Today, Annie, who was 18 at the time she contracted hantavirus, still has side effects from the whole experience.
“She has scarring on her skin from the ECMO machine,” her father said. “And she has a birthmark on her back. We don’t know what that’s about. And she lost 40 percent of her right quad muscle. If she works out, it kind of hurts, and that leg gets tired real fast.
“Anybody who goes through what she did comes through it with side effects,” Joe Merriam said.
But he knows his daughter beat the odds at the time.
“There were five (hantavirus cases) in the state that year,” Merriam said. “And only two survived.”
• • • • •
Devon Rose, the 18-year-old wrestler from Rangely, who was recently diagnosed with the hantavirus disease, continues to recuperate.
“He’s doing good,” said his mother, Kathy.
Devon, who was graduated from Rangely Senior High in May, was taken to Rangely District Hospital on Aug. 11. From there, he was transferred to St. Mary’s in Grand Junction and then to the hospital in Albuquerque, where it was diagnosed he had contracted hantavirus. Unlike Annie, though, Devon’s condition did not require use of the ECMO machine to treat the disease.
“That would have been a little more scary,” his mom said. “But it’s scary enough just wondering (about what might have been).”
• • • • •
The August primary election was held more than two weeks ago, but there are still plenty of candidate signs around in both towns in the county.
“Technically, they need to come down five days after the election … it’s up to the people who put them up to take them down, but it’s very difficult to enforce,” said Meeker Town Administrator Sharon Day. “Probably, what we’ll have to do is to talk to property owners and see if they’ll take them down.”
• • • • •
Shawn Bolton, who won the three-way primary race for a seat on the County Commission, will be sworn in Jan. 11, at the end of Joe Collins’ current term. Collins is retiring.
Dr. Albert Krueger, who won the primary race for county coroner, will be sworn in at the same time. He replaces Ran Cochran, who resigned.
“Dr. Krueger was appointed by the board on Aug. 12 (effective Aug. 19) to complete Ran’s term, which would have ended the second Tuesday in January,” said County Clerk Nancy Amick.
• • • • •
Dr. Barry Bialek will not be joining the medical staff at Rangely District Hospital after all. “Unfortunately something came up in his personal life,” said Nick Goshe, hospital CEO. “He has expressed regret and we are disappointed, but we will move on with our search.”
• • • • •
Local boards are scrambling to deal with ever-increasing budget challenges. Rangely School District is no different.
“We are preparing for another difficult budget cycle,” said Superintendent Barry Williams. “Last year, due to state revenue shortfalls, our funding for 2009-10 was reduced by a little over $80,000 in mid-year. Additionally, our formula funding for the current 2010-11 fiscal year was cut by a little over $220,000. We are hopeful that no further mid-year remissions will occur this year, but a June state revenue forecast predicted a $214.5 million shortfall in the 2010-11 state budget. The September state revenue forecast will provide a better picture of K-12 education funding prospects at the state level.
“Looking ahead, the passage of Amendments 60 and 61 and Proposition 101 this November would further impair state-level education funding. Finally, the state will be required to provide fewer dollars to education beginning July 1, 2011, with the expiration of the part of Amendment 13 that requires base education funding to increase by inflation plus 1 percent each year. Thereafter, only the inflation requirement will remain. The funding challenges are many and the resources are few — we have our work cut out for us.”
• • • • •
Meeker’s School Board has given its blessing to another sport — golf. But funding will come from other sources.
“Meeker School Board did authorize the high school to have a sanctioned golf program. It was sanctioned, but was sponsored through private fund raising,” said Brett Steinacher, Meeker High School athletics director.
• • • • •
Rio Blanco County’s former funeral home director, Ran Cochran, and the county’s new funeral home director, Joseph Swiger, have an Alaska connection.
“We lived in the same apartment above the funeral home in Wasilla, my first year (in Alaska),” Swiger said of the apartment where Ran and his daughter Sydney are now living. “That was just coincidence. I hadn’t said anything to Ran about that before.”
Ran and Sydney moved to Alaska earlier this month. Swiger and his family moved here from Alaska in March.
It really is a small world.
Jeff Burkhead is editor of the Herald Times. You may e-mail him at jeff@theheraldtimes.com.