Whenever Tamela Wilson ventured into the woods, she was always careful to protect herself from the elements. Nonetheless, one tiny tick bite landed her in hospital and totally stumped her doctors. Then, only three weeks later, she was on the verge of death.
Wilson’s name has appeared in news reports all over the world ever since something awful happened to her in 2017. It all started during a day out in Missouri’s Meramec State Park, a place that she was very familiar with.
After all, Wilson’s job was assistant superintendent of the whole park, so she knew exactly what she was doing when it came to personal safety there. Whenever she headed into the denser areas, for example, she’d make sure to cover her arms and legs. In addition, she always used an insect repellent.
There were various critters in the woods that had the capacity to make visitors ill. But above all, it was usually ticks that affected people who’d entered the park. So, after Wilson had spent some time there, she told one of her daughters to check her body for any lingering ticks.
Her daughter, Andrea Cabanas, subsequently found two of the insects and made sure to pick them out. But unfortunately for Wilson, who already suffered from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, that wasn’t the end of the matter. She began to feel unwell over the following days, in fact, and so she headed to the doctor.
At first, she was told that she had a urinary tract infection. However, the prescribed antibiotics had no effect on her symptoms. Wilson consequently went back in and had some blood tests done. And the results showed a white blood cell count that wasn’t as high as it should have been.
Soon, Wilson was at St. Louis’ Barnes-Jewish Hospital, where doctors investigated her condition further. It was then that Wilson informed staff that she’d recently suffered a tick bite. She also had a rash by this point, and doctors ran tests for a couple of known tick-related diseases.
Doctors suspected that Wilson might have Heartland virus or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. But when her results came back, the medical staff were confused. Wilson didn’t have either of the illnesses that they’d pinpointed. So, it was time for broaden their investigation.
Then, everyone involved received an unwelcome surprise. When Wilson’s blood results returned from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they indicated that she was suffering from something totally unexpected. The name of Wilson’s condition was the Bourbon virus.
“No one had ever heard of it,” Wilson’s other daughter, Amie May, told Today. That wasn’t much of a surprise, though, given that there had only been four people in the whole of the U.S. diagnosed with Bourbon virus before Wilson was unlucky enough to contract it.
The first case of Bourbon virus in the U.S. was found in John Seested, 68, from Kansas. He was bitten by a tick in 2014 and passed away a fortnight later. Worldwide, though, there had only ever been eight other documented cases of the condition before Seested was diagnosed.
The most tragic aspect of Bourbon virus is that there is no known cure. People who contract it usually feel very tired. They also experience headaches, nausea, rashes and fever, to name just a few of the symptoms. But all that doctors can do is try to alleviate those symptoms.
“It’s viral. There isn’t anything you can do. It just has to run its course,” May told CBS News. And Wilson wasn’t doing well at all. As a result of the virus, she contracted pneumonia as well as hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis. The latter is a condition that causes the activation of an excessive number of the body’s immune cells.
Wilson’s doctors gave her some chemotherapy in an effort to improve her condition, but it was unsuccessful. May told Today that every time she went to see her mom Wilson would be “a little worse than the last time.” She added that the doctors “were at a loss of what to do for her.”
Wilson’s strength was evidently deteriorating – May recalled how her mom wasn’t even able to hold her mobile phone anymore. “The phone was right there ringing, but she could not pick it up to answer it,” May told CBS. Even though she herself was a medical professional, May’s condition was shocking for her to see.
“I’m a nurse, and I’ve never seen anything like I’d seen my mother’s mouth,” May explained. “It got so bad toward the end she couldn’t talk, couldn’t drink, couldn’t eat – nothing.” Then, on June 23, 2017, Wilson passed away.
It was only three weeks since Wilson had first arrived at the hospital. Her family was devastated by what had happened. “You wouldn’t want this for your worst enemy,” Wilson’s stepmom, Kathy Potter, said in an interview with Fox 6 News.
Wilson’s death was clearly a shock to her family and also to the medical professionals who treated her. The rare illness blindsided everyone, and as a result May is now making it her mission to raise awareness of the Bourbon virus in her mother’s memory.
Wilson’s story has since featured in news reports all over the world – the first step to making people aware of the tick-related disease. May has also offered some advice to anyone planning to spend time outdoors, especially during the summer months.
“If you are outside in the woods, just check for ticks and know the symptoms,” she told Today. Although May’s efforts won’t bring back her mom, they might still help someone else to recognize the symptoms of the Bourbon virus early enough to overcome it in the future.