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A Miraculous Recovery, Step by Step

After recovering from the paralysis of West Nile encephalitis, Kimberly Dickson could sit on the side of the bed with three therapists assisting.

With the health scare of West Nile at its peak in the summer of 2012, Kimberly Dickson understood its danger and took precautions.  On a camping trip in June, she used plenty of mosquito repellent.

However, later that month, she made a quick stop at her mother’s house in Mansfield to take care of her mother’s animals.  A mosquito bite that afternoon left her paralyzed for months.

At the age of 44, Kimberly became the face of West Nile encephalitis in the Metroplex as local news reports chronicled her struggles and her progress.  Now, more than two years later, she continues regular physical therapy and medical care, inching and fighting her way to regain the mobility she enjoyed before that day.

On July 9, 2012, Kimberly’s mother became concerned about her.  Kimberly was weak, nauseated, confused and throwing up.  Her mother took her to the emergency department of Huguley Memorial Medical Center, as it was called then.  Physicians initially suspected bacterial meningitis, but by the next day had confirmed West Nile encephalitis, the more serious of the two West Nile illnesses.

Soon, Kimberly was in a coma, unable to even use her eyes to track someone moving across the room.  When she stopped breathing for 14 minutes, her family came in to say their good-byes. 

“Most of the medical staff considered her case hopeless and had given up on her, but God had a different opinion,” said Ehab Hanna, MD, who served as Kimberly’s hospitalist and still sees her monthly as her primary care physician.

“Everyone thought that was the end, but I’m still here for a reason,” said Kimberly.  “Dr. Hanna never gave up on me.  He calls me his ‘miracle patient’ and pushes for my improvement.”

After about three days in a coma, Kimberly regained consciousness, but remained paralyzed for months.  “I don’t remember much about those months.  Much of the time felt like a vivid dream.”

Physical therapists at the hospital worked with her daily.  At first, she was so weak and had such poor muscle control that it took three therapists just to help her sit on the edge of the bed.  As the months passed, she slowly regained movement. 

“On a beautiful fall day, we decided to take Kimberly outside for the first time since July.  It took three of us to keep her stable in the wheelchair so that she could get some sunshine,” said Jessica Sanders, a physical therapy tech who has worked with Kimberly as an inpatient and an outpatient.

After nearly five months at Huguley, the time came to move to a rehabilitation center, but she encountered another blow.  Insurance benefits from her previous employment had long run out, and facilities were not eager to assume care of an uninsured patient.

However, a little more media attention came to her aid.  After a follow-up report by ABC News, a rehab hospital in Denton stepped forward and offered to assist Kimberly.  After several weeks there, Kimberly was discharged to her mother’s home.

“On March 2, 2013, Kim had her first visit to the outpatient therapy services department of Texas Health Huguley Hospital.  She was in a wheelchair and couldn’t hold her head vertically,” says physical therapist Meagan Minzenmayer, PT, DPT, CKPT, CIDN.

After a few weeks, as Meagan and Kimberly still worked on head control, they added another challenge.  Meagan helped her to stand between the parallel bars for some weight bearing practice.  “Next thing we know, Kimberly’s walking down to the end and back.  She constantly exceeds my expectations,” Meagan recalled.

“Kimberly has made tremendous progress, because she’s highly motivated, maintains a positive attitude and has a great support system in her mother, daughters and fiancée Bill Swoape.  He’s been at her side the entire time,” explained Meagan.

“I’ll never forget the day Kim walked into therapy,” said Meagan.  “She’s progressed from a wheelchair to a walker, then a quad cane and now a single cane.”  The cane helps her with balance, which is still a challenge.  A few falls have caused setbacks and discouragement.

Dr. Hanna also remembers vividly the first time he saw Kimberly walking.  “Almost no one thought she would live, much less walk again.  What God did is a miracle,” he said.

In 19 months, Meagan, Jessica and Kimberly have had more than 100 physical therapy sessions together.  As with much of her hospitalization, Texas Health Huguley has been providing the care at no cost as part of its mission to extend the healing ministry of Christ.

Lately, Meagan has added dry needling, an intramuscular stimulation technique which has reduced the frequency and intensity of Kimberly’s migraines.  The headaches and occasional mental lapses are more remaining symptoms of West Nile encephalitis.

“One frustration for Kimberly and all her care providers is that so much is unknown about this disease.  To be on the brink of death and recover from West Nile encephalitis is relatively rare and new to this country.  It’s not like a stroke, where we have established expectations about the path and scope of recovery,” explained Meagan.

Dr. Hanna researched a few similar West Nile encephalitis cases in Israel, where the disease is more common, but found no definitive course of treatment.

“I admire her drive, because she pushes through the uncertainties and the setbacks even when we don’t have the answers,” Meagan continued.

Jessica added, “She’s the strongest person I know.  She’s made amazing progress, and we are all so proud of her.”

“At times, I’ve been certain that living was more difficult than dying,” said Kimberly.  “But prayers and support have pulled me through.  I believe having malignant cancer as a teenager helped me through this struggle.  I have cheated death before.”

Meagan concluded, “Kimberly is very independent and driven to recover completely.  She wants to get back to work and to doing things for her fiancée and her family, instead of having them do things for her.  And with a new grandson on the way, she wants to help.”

About West Nile
Transmitted by the bite of an infected mosquito, West Nile strikes in two forms:  West Nile encephalitis and the milder West Nile fever.  West Nile encephalitis can have symptoms including headache, high fever, neck stiffness, stupor, disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness and paralysis. West Nile fever, while less serious, can produce fever, headache, body aches, swollen lymph glands and occasionally a skin rash on the trunk of the body.

As of November 4, the Texas Department of State Health Services has confirmed 269 cases this year in Texas and four deaths.  Nationwide, 58 individuals have died of West Nile illness this year.

West Nile Prevention
• Wear long sleeves, pants and socks when outdoors.
• Mosquitoes are most active at dawn and dusk, so avoid being outside during those hours if possible.
• Wear insect repellent containing DEET.
• Drain standing water around your home, including swimming pool covers, bird baths, flower pots, pet dishes and gutters.
• Repair torn screens to keep mosquitos out of your home.
• Report dead birds, as they can signal West Nile virus in the area, to the TX Dept of State Health Services (1-888-963-7111).