Livonia man battles back from West Nile Virus

Experts say everyone needs to 'police' property for mosquitoes

LIVONIA, Mich. – Mike Fortner spent most of last summer outdoors, renovating the house he and his wife had purchased in Livonia.

"I'd put eight, 10, 12 hours in at a time," Fortner said.

He admits, he never bothered with mosquito repellent or considered the risk of West Nile Virus.

"I never worried about it. I didn't like using mosquito repellent," he said. "We hear news stories or hear about people getting something like this, we never think, 'Well it's going to be me.'"

Fortner's wife, Kathy, said her husband didn't have a history of illness.

"He was very healthy and very strong, and not somebody prone to sickness," Kathy Fortner said.

Summer changed to fall, and Fortner continued putting in long hours.

"October came along, the weather was still really nice," Kathy Fortner said. "He had a couple projects he wanted to finish, so he was out working. One day that he got up, he said that he was exhausted."

A fever and body aches soon followed. 

Kathy Fortner said she had heard about local cases of West Nile Virus and wondered if her husband had become infected.

"One of the symptoms that I'd seen about West Nile was a rash on the body, and I saw that," she said.  "That's when I just knew in my heart what it was."

Over the next three days, doctors confirmed the virus and her fears. Her husband's condition deteriorated.

"Went from being a normal active individual, and in three days, being flat on my back and not being able to literally move," Mike Fortner said.

Two weeks into his fight against West Nile Virus, Fortner suffered a pulmonary embolism.

As doctors fought to save his life, his wife prayed. 

"I just called on God and I said, 'You can't take him right now.  You can't take him right now,'" Kathy Fortner said.  "She called back and said they had gotten him back and were working on him."

Her husband survived, but he would spend nine weeks in the hospital and four months at a rehab center. He needed a ventilator and feeding tube and battled through pneumonia, MRSA, and C. diff. 

Mike Fortner's case was severe. Most people who are infected by West Nile Virus will not experience symptoms. But when they do, West Nile Virus can be disabling, even fatal.

The topic of recovery is still an emotional one for Mike Fortner. From the start, doctors couldn't tell him how much he function he might cover or when. 

"My daughter came and told me I'd be all right," Mike Fortner said. "And I know God's good. So that's what we go on. As far as I'm concerned, it's only by the grace of God that I'm still here."

With hard work and physical therapy, he can now walk with a walker.  He says hyperbaric oxygen treatment helped him improve too.

The Fortners now have their yard professionally sprayed for mosquitoes on a regular basis, and they've learned a lot about the mosquitoes that carry West Nile Virus.

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One of the experts whose advice they sought is Brian Wilson, the superintendent of Public Service in Livonia. 

Wilson has helped lead the effort to educate residents about mosquitoes. 

"There's a couple different kinds of mosquitos that we have commonly here," said Wilson.  "Aedes vexans is the type that breeds in open waters, those are those common mosquitos that drive us crazy at dusk and dawn when we're trying to barbecue. Fortunately, they do not carry the West Nile Virus."  

Wilson says the culprit in Michigan is the Culex pipiens mosquito.

"They're the shy type. They breed in out-of-the-way places like catch basins. They don't like to be out in the open and in the wind. They'll breed in gutters. They love gutters because of the standing water and organic material in there. They'll breed anywhere there's an opportunity -- a wheelbarrow in the backyard, an upside-down garbage lid, anywhere that water will collect," Wilson said.

Livonia has treated all of the city's catch basins with a slow-release briquette that kills mosquito larvae. But, Wilson urges everyone to do your part.

"Each of us policing our own property and our own yards could make the greatest difference," said Wilson. "Make sure there's no children's toys out there, no garden flower pots. Those kinds of things that can collect water because, without water, these mosquitoes cannot breed, and they cannot grow into adults."

It's a warning the Fortners hope everyone will heed.

"People don't give mosquitoes enough credit. I mean really mosquitoes are known for killing people by the thousands across world," said Kathy Fortner. "Nobody should take a chance with this because of what it can do.  We take precautions now, definitely."

Resources to help you protect yourself from West Nile Virus:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Michigan Department of Community Health

PDF of Mosquito testing and pools in Michigan