Craig Johnson traipsed through the jungles of Southeast Asia in 1969-70 as a combat infantryman during the Vietnam War.
He went on search-and-destroy missions near the Laotian border and was wounded twice. Last April, a bullet he didn’t know still was inside him suddenly began working its way out of his body and had to be removed. Indeed, he bears the scars of war.
But nothing – not the North Vietnamese nor the bugs and venomous snakes of Vietnam – came as close to killing him as did a mosquito in the backyard of his home about a block from the post office in Oakdale.
His episode began in early August. Johnson likes to go out to his backyard to meditate. He suspects that is when he was bitten one evening, although he can’t be certain. About two weeks later, wife Bonnie said, he said he had a fever and headache. He took aspirin, thinking he had just a touch of the flu. He went to see a doctor, but his fever subsided – probably due to the aspirin – while the virus continued to do damage.
The following Saturday, Aug. 23, his temperature shot up to 104.7.
“They told us to get him to Memorial immediately,” Bonnie Johnson said. But again, the fever dropped and he wasn’t admitted. For the next week, his muscles ached, his neck ached, his body ached. And he developed a urinary tract infection, which sent him back to the hospital.
“They filled him with four (units) of saline and two of antibiotics,” Bonnie said. “They said to go home and take the antibiotics.”
The Johnsons were scheduled to go to Alameda to take care of their grandchildren. Craig didn’t want to cancel, and it turned out to be a blessing, Bonnie said.
“I can take the antibiotics and be in bed, and you can be with the kids,” he told her. One night near midnight, he had a seizure. Bonnie called 911. The paramedics arrived within minutes, but not before a second seizure left him face down on the floor.
“He’d coded,” she said. “White lights and everything. He was in and out of death. I thought we’d lost him.”
He soon found himself in the critical care unit at a hospital in Alameda, where “they threw everything at him,” Bonnie said. “They did all kinds of tests.”
The results showed he had spinal meningitis, encephalitis, pneumonia, sepsis and the urinary tract infection – all under the umbrella of West Nile virus, she said. They waited until he stabilized to tell her they also found some cancer cells in the spinal fluid. He’s lost 35 pounds in roughly a month and faces several months of recovery.
The irony is that despite being wounded twice and exposed to the bad things Southeast Asia had to offer, he enhanced his chances of surviving West Nile by never smoking cigarettes or becoming diabetic.
“They (the doctors) all couldn’t emphasize that enough,” Bonnie said. “ ‘Did you ever (smoke) even a pack of cigarettes? What about secondhand smoke?’ ”
Initially, they suggested Craig might be in the hospital or a rehab center for a long time. But he rebounded enough to return home 11 days later. He sleeps on and off about 22 hours each day and wonders why county health officials are so guarded about where West Nile cases are happening.
“There’s a little guy, not a year old, who lives a couple of hundred yards away,” Craig Johnson said. “It could have been him. (Public health information) is a government function. But they don’t let you know where the issues are. We certainly know where the pedophiles are (through mapping).”
Dr. John Walker, Stanislaus County’s top health official, said the county doesn’t provide maps to the public in part because there is no guarantee of accuracy. The victim might report the case from Oakdale, but the bite could have occurred anywhere.
“If we provided maps, it would give people the sense that there are safe places to be,” Walker said. “In this state, 50 of the 58 counties have had virus activity. You have to take precautions wherever you live.”
The typical mosquito season lasts into October, he said. Johnson’s is at least the 22nd confirmed West Nile case in Stanislaus County in 2014 and the third reported within the past month or so. In August, two college students from the area – one from Modesto and attending UC Berkeley and the other from Lathrop and Delta College in Stockton – were hospitalized in Modesto to treat the virus.
A mosquito abatement officer visited the Johnsons on Friday.
“He inspected our yards and found nothing that would allow mosquitoes to develop,” Bonnie Johnson said. “He said that we are a mile from the (Stanislaus) river and that mosquitoes can travel several miles, especially if there is a breeze. They go to the light of a city or house. There is a mosquito abatement program in place for Oakdale and all towns. Once a month, they put a chemical in the sewers because mosquitoes like sewers. He is going to look over the neighborhood for uncared-for swimming pools or other possible sources of breeding grounds. I am pleased with the response. I guess they are doing what they can with the funding they have. It just isn’t enough.”
Because, as Craig Johnson can attest, the bite of one West Nile virus-bearing mosquito can cause more problems than enemy bullets.