West Nile's cruel summer: Insidious virus strikes Ottawa-area man

Three weeks ago, Robert Gibeault was fishing at one of his favourite local spots. Now he's in an intensive care bed, breathing with the aid of a ventilator, his legs paralyzed.

Robert Gibeault, 61, in intensive care at Ottawa Hospital after being diagnosed with mosquito-borne virus

'I'm an optimist by nature and that's what keeps me going,' says Michelle Gibeault, who's spent the last two weeks at her husband's hospital bedside after he was diagnosed with West Nile virus. (CBC)

At least five days a week during the summer, Robert Gibeault would head out fishing near his home in Crysler, Ont., about 50 kilometres southeast of Ottawa.

At his favourite spots along the Ottawa, Nation, and St. Lawrence rivers, he'd reel in pickerel, bass and perch.

The fishing trips ended in August when Gibeault contracted West Nile virus.

I wasn't aware of the seriousness of the disease.- Michelle Gibeault

On Aug. 22 he was admitted to the Civic campus of the Ottawa Hospital where his condition worsened. On Thursday he was moved to the intensive care unit and placed on a ventilator to help him breath.

His wife Michelle Gibeault has been by his bedside every day. 

"I wasn't aware of the seriousness of the disease," she said.

Best case, worst case

Now her husband's deteriorating health is constantly on her mind, Michelle says.
Robert Gibeault enjoyed fishing along the rivers near his home in Crysler, Ont.

"You can imagine the thoughts that go through my head. You think of the best case scenario, and you think of the worst case scenario, and you hope it's somewhere in between."

Robert has Type 2 diabetes, but was otherwise strong and healthy, his wife said. Now the virus has affected his spirit as well as his body. He's told her he doesn't know if he'll walk again.

"He's worried," Michelle said.

3 confirmed cases in Ottawa

In July Ottawa Public Health reported mosquitoes in Ottawa had tested positive for West Nile, and warned the virus had arrived early this year, creating the risk of what the agency called "higher than usual West Nile activity."

So far this year there have been three confirmed cases of West Nile virus in humans in Ottawa. In 2016 Ottawa Public Health reported two confirmed or probable cases, and there were no cases reported in 2015.   

Robert Gibeault is not included in the 2017 figures because he lives outside Ottawa.

First told he had flu

The 61-year-old retiree woke up on Sunday, Aug. 20 feeling disoriented and told his wife his legs felt "wobbly." The couple had attended an outdoor concert the previous evening where he remembered receiving more than two dozen mosquito bites, but Michelle said her husband had already been feeling fatigued  and "out of sorts" for days.
Robert Gibeault poses for a photograph near the Great Wall of China in healthier, happier times.

The next morning, after taking a shower, Robert began shaking so badly his wife suspected he was having a stroke. He reluctantly agreed to go to hospital in Winchester where he was told he had a bad case of flu. He was sent home and told to come back if his condition worsened. 

After the couple pulled into their driveway Robert collapsed getting out of the car, telling his wife he couldn't feel his legs. Michelle called for an ambulance and Robert was taken back to Winchester District Memorial Hospital. 

By midnight Robert had a high fever and aches all over his body, and he was transferred by ambulance to hospital in Ottawa. Staff with the Ottawa Hospital's neurology unit suspected West Nile virus, and four days later tests confirmed the diagnosis.

Confused, agitated

Michelle said her husband has become confused and agitated, which prompted him at one point to rip out his intravenous line.

"He's a little bit lost and not coherent, and his speech is slurred," she said earlier this week. "Yesterday he didn't know I was his wife."

Dr. Kathryn Suh, an infectious disease specialist at the Ottawa Hospital, said only a small portion of those who contract West Nile develop symptoms so severe that they end up in hospital.

The most serious form of the infection is West Nile encephalitis, where the virus attacks the brain. Suh said 10 per cent of those cases are either fatal or leave the patient with some long-term disability.

Robert tested positive for encephalitis. 

No vaccine

There is no vaccine or specific antiviral remedy for West Nile, Suh said.

"There is no specific therapy." 

Instead, patients are given pain medication and intravenous fluids until the virus runs its course, Suh said. Once a patient becomes stable, their recovery from paralysis or cognitive impairment can begin.

"It's just a question of time whether that resolves fully," Suh said.

Michelle knows her husband has a long road ahead of him. She's been told by hospital staff Robert's rehabilitation could take six months or more.

'I'm an optimist'

Michelle is thankful for the support of their children — hers from her first marriage and her husband's from his — and from friends and neighbours who have called to offer help.
Michelle and Robert Gibeault pose for a photograph while travelling in China.

"I'm an optimist by nature and that's what keeps me going, and I'll be by his side no matter what," she said.

She's also becoming something of an expert on West Nile virus, researching the illness and learning what can be done to control the mosquito population.

She's warning others to wear insect repellent — something she says her husband never did — and urging municipalities to spray for mosquitoes.

"I want to encourage the local government to spray for mosquitoes more aggressively now that it's in this area," Gibeault said.