Last summer my father fell ill and fell down and hit his head, taking out much of one tiled wall in his bathroom. Although he was still conscious and verbal, I made the decision to call for an ambulance.
He was a man very full of life and very grateful for all the blessings of the now... of family, sex, food, fun, books and the amazing works of art and science created by humans.
He lived on the Upper West Side of New York City on the 30th floor looking out over Lincoln Center, the Hudson River and over to the Watchung Mountain Range in New Jersey. Practically allergic to sunlight, my red-headed, bluish-white skinned 6'2" father somehow got bit by an infected mosquito.
It took a week before they knew he had gotten West Nile Virus. Dr. Annie Fine, M.D., an epidemiologist with the NYC Department of Health, told me that they had found more than 200 standing pools of water in NYC last summer with mosquitoes infected with West Nile Virus. Within two days after falling ill and falling down, he lost his ability to walk, stand and speak. I spoke to Dr. Sejvar, the Center for Disease Control's expert on West Nile Virus, and read a paper he published, which showed 904 deaths from 9,700 cases (9.3 percent) and that in 1999, of the New Yorkers who got West Nile neuroinvasive encephalitis, meningitis or poliomyelitis, only 37 percent recovered after one year (the remainder paralyzed, on a respirator and/or having permanent memory loss).
My dad's living will, drafted years earlier, noted that 99 percent of people who are paralyzed could still intentionally blink their eyes. He knew Morse code from both being a boy scout and delivering telegrams during WWII, so his instructions were to put up a poster of the Morse code on the wall of his hospital room. If he could, he would blink his left eye for dot and his right eye for dash. Sadly, during his month in hospital, he was never able to use the Morse code or any other kind of communication. His living will stated that if he was in a coma or unable to move and communicate, we should make him comfortable and let him die. His epiglottis stopped working so that, without constant medical intervention, he would drown in his own saliva. I made the decision to stop the medical intervention, and he quickly died. He wanted no funeral or ceremony and wanted his body given to medical school.
By lucky coincidence, we were very close during our last year together. For the past 30 years I have lived in Massachusetts. This last year I came to the city once per week, arriving in my Prius at 7:30 a.m. My dad would sit in the car with me for two hours until alternate side of the street parking regulations made my spot legal for the next few days. While car sitting, we talked about everything: world history, the human genome project, cold dark matter and dark energy, string theory, my family and the women he was dating. There was nothing unspoken between us and he was always very vocal about how much he loved me. After my workday he would make me dinner. The next morning we would exercise side by side while watching cowboy movies. At 84 he still did two hours of hard exercise each day: Nordica Track, elliptical trainer. He also did 300 30-pound curls each day, 70 squats with 30-pound weights and 70 tippy toes with 30-pound weights. He did not drink, he did not smoke. He did not believe in a God.
He was the first to die of West Nile Virus in NYC last year. Concurrent with his dying, the New York City Department of Health sprayed insecticide on Central Park and the Upper West Side.
Endnote: According to the CDC, Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus is a safe, all-natural mosquito repellent that is as effective as DEET. It is now available in most chain stores.