For Hantavirus Survivors, Yosemite a Painful Reminder

PHOTO: Jennifer Benewiat gets a visit from her friend, Becky Logue, as she recovers from hantavirus in the hospital in 2010.

When Jennifer Benewiat first came down with a fever on Christmas 2010 at her home in Wichita, Kansas, she thought it was the flu.

What she didn't know was that she had a deadly illness called hantavirus, which would stop her heart three times in ten days.

"I get upset still because I had no idea, and it's just a mouse," Benewiat said. Hantavirus is carried in airborne particles of urine or feces from infected mice, which can be inhaled by people. "It's really scary, and people don't realize the danger that comes from something so little."

As the number of Yosemite campers at risk for hantavirus climbs to 10,000, including people in 39 countries outside the United States, those who have survived the deadly airborne disease are reminded what they went through and the struggle that still lies ahead.

"There's a perception that once a patient has left the hospital, that the patient has completely recovered and can go about their normal routines just like before, but that's not really the case," said Marjorie McConnell, a medical sociologist at the University of New Mexico who founded the Hantavirus Survivors group on Facebook and Twitter.

McConnell started the group a few years ago to give survivors a place to support one another. It now includes 42 survivors and their family members, including a few new faces in light of the outbreak at Yosemite.

Benewiat, 29, said the hantavirus group on Facebook first alerted her to this summer's Yosemite outbreak, which has already killed two people and infected four others. As she read, overwhelming fear passed over her for a moment. It's the same sensation she gets every time she reads about a new hantavirus case as a result of her post-traumatic stress disorder, she said.

It all started with a 104-degree fever and flu symptoms that wouldn't go away for nearly two years ago, Benewiat said. It's still not clear where she inhaled the virus. The first time she went to her doctor's office, he ran a number of tests, but found nothing. He sent her home with medicine for nausea.

When nothing changed the next day, he told her to go to the emergency room, where doctors performed more tests. But they still didn't know the mystery illness they were treating, and Benewiat was beginning to fear passing it to her 2-year-old twins, her infant, her mother or her sister.

"The first doctor she saw in the ER was just going to send her home," said Benewiat's mother, Gayle Collins, 52, as she fought off tears. "If she would have went home, she would have died in her sleep that night." Benewiat's oxygen level dropped while she was at the hospital. Within a few hours, Collins was signing paperwork to put her on a ventilator.

A doctor friend from New Mexico, where hantavirus is more common, recognized the symptoms right away. They tested Benewiat for hantavirus, but the results would take more than a week to process before they could get an actual diagnosis.

That was time she didn't have, but sure enough, a chest X-ray revealed that her lungs were full of fluid, a common symptom of hantavirus pulmonary syndrome. Of the 587 reported hantavirus cases in the United States, 36 percent of them resulted in death as of December 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

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