Woman tells her story of survival against West Nile encephalitis

Keri Bollman

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Just two days after the family of a 13-year-old Bastrop County boy said they are worried the boy’s death was caused by West Nile Virus, a Travis County woman is telling KXAN News her story of surviving West Nile encephalitis.

The tragedy of his death hits especially close to home for Keri Bollman.

“My outcome could have been very different,” said Bollman, knowing the disease she suffered could have been fatal. “For whatever reason, it wasn’t.”

Cody Hopkins (via Facebook)
Cody Hopkins (via Facebook)

Bollman says she gets goosebumps thinking about Cody Hopkins, pictured left, and what he endured, knowing he did not survive the disease she did.

“It’s a horrible situation and I can only imagine what their family is going through,” Bollman said.

Bollman was diagnosed with West Nile encephalitis in 2004. At the time, she was a 21-year-old undergraduate student at Texas A&M University.

“West Nile was new. No one really knew it was out there,” Bollman said. “They really had no idea at that point what was going on.”

Bollman told KXAN that at the time, she thought she may have been experiencing an allergic reaction. Later, she showed flu-like symptoms and thought that could be the culprit of her sickness. About two days after her symptoms, Bollman’s best friend found her unresponsive at her home. She was taken to the hospital where a spinal tap showed Bollman tested positive for West Nile encephalitis.

Bollman spent nearly three months in the hospital at St. David’s in Austin. There, she says she relearned how to walk, talk, and function. Once she was well enough, she endured two months of out-patient care, recovering alongside stroke patients. She says the recovery was like going back in time.

“It’s honestly like starting as an infant,” Bollman said. “I literally had a walker, I had a wheelchair, I had a cane.”

She says her diagnosis changed her life. She was supposed to be graduating from Texas A&M University the semester she got sick. Instead, the disease forced her to withdraw from school temporarily. There was concern she would not be able to go back to school.

But, Bollman did go back. She graduated from A&M in December 2005. In June 2006, she then went on to Yale University for physician assistant school.

Bollman’s physician’s assistant at Premier Family Physicians in Austin. She understands the toll the virus can take, both as a patient and now, as a medical professional.

“I know what it’s like to be the patient,” explained Bollman. “The person who they’re trying to figure out what’s going on, and it’s just feeling like you’re in the middle of… you’re lost in the medical world.”

Bollman says she doesn’t understand why she was able to survive the disease.

“Being 21 and being relatively healthy was probably the best thing I had going for me at that point,” she said.

She says she hopes her story brings awareness to West Nile.

“If you see your child who has these kind of weird, flu-like symptoms in the summer before flu starts, that it should be on people’s radar,” said Bollman. “When you get the encephalitis or the meningitis, which is the rare kind — less than one percent of people get — it can be pretty devastating, pretty quickly, and I think that’s what people don’t anticipate.”

West Nile Virus

At last report on Tuesday, Oct. 11, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services,

West Nile illness continues to spread in Texas causing at least 200 cases of illness and seven deaths in 2016. People should reduce their risk of exposure to the mosquito-borne virus that causes it by eliminating standing water and other mosquito breeding areas and avoiding mosquito bites.”

In 2015, there were 275 human cases of West Nile illness in Texas, including 16 deaths.

Less than one percent of people who are infected with West Nile virus will develop a serious neurological illness, such as encephalitis or meningitis, like Bollman contracted. Officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say about 10 percent of people who develop neurologic infection due to West Nile virus will die.

The most recent report from DSHS indicates 222 people have been infected with West Nile this year and four have died. Of the 222 cases, 116 of those individuals suffered from neurologic illness.

For more information about the West Nile virus, click here to read the Department of State Health Services fact sheet.

West Nile Virus activity in Texas. Oct. 11, 2016 (DSHS Photo)
West Nile Virus activity in Texas. Oct. 11, 2016 (DSHS Photo)