One little mosquito bite turned a Nevada teacher’s world upside down at the start of this school year.
Today — more than five months later — Karl Corbin, 54, still uses a cane to slowly walk the halls of Nevada Middle School, where he teaches seventh-grade math. Corbin’s legs, primarily his left one and that knee, are still weak from the blows his body took when he contracted West Nile Virus and was among the 1 percent of people for whom the disease deals out severe consequences. "They say it has more effect on young kids and those over 50. And I’m one of those (in the over 50 group)," he said.
Corbin offered to share his story with the hope that it might help others be more proactive about the dangers that lurk in something as simple as a bug bite.
In the 31 years he’s taught at Nevada – his entire career – Corbin, also a coach in the district, has never been as sick as he was at the start of the present school year.
"It started the last week of August," he said. He doesn’t know where he was when he got bit. He had traveled to Wisconsin for the weekend, he said, "but it could have been in Jewell." Corbin lives in Jewell with his wife Joy, who teaches in the Hubbard-Radcliffe School District, and their children: Logan, 18; Tristan, 14 and Ava, 6.
He didn’t realize he’d been bitten, because it wasn’t a bug bite that started to bother him. It was the aching he felt all over his body, and it came on fast as his weekend trip came to an end. "I felt like Muhammad Ali had used my whole back as a punching bag," he said.
That Monday, he went to the doctor. "I thought maybe I had shingles, but he (the doctor) said, ‘No. It was probably a virus that will go away eventually.’ Everybody gets viruses."
But throughout the week, Corbin’s pain grew worse, traveling from his back, all the way down into his legs. He was having trouble walking. He managed to get to the Iowa State football game against UNI, but didn’t feel very good, and the next day, he tried taking part in a family reunion, but felt horrible. "I didn’t eat, didn’t feel like doing anything. I just wanted to go home."
On the Sunday before Labor Day, he found himself lying in bed, hardly able to move. Getting up to use the bathroom, he said, "was laborious." He was taking pain pills the doctor had prescribed and trying not to move.
He contemplated letting the family take him to the emergency room, but decided to lay in bed another day and wait for the doctor’s office to open that Tuesday. He sent an email to Sue Kohler, who would become his long-term classroom sub, and later, Kohler told him that the email he sent was a jumbled mess – further indication of how "out of it" Corbin was when he sent it.
By the time he was helped down the household stairs and wheeled by chair into the doctor’s office, Corbin was wiped out. "I was exhausted and running a temperature of 102." He said he knew he probably wasn’t going to be going back home that day.
During his first night in Mary Greeley Medical Center, Corbin said doctors, including an infectious disease specialist and a neurologist, ran every kind of test you could run – blood work, spinal tap, MRIs – and his temperature spiked to 107 and peaked at 108. All in one night, and he doesn’t really remember any of it clearly.
Finally, the doctors came to a partial conclusion, feeling it was either Lyme’s Disease or West Nile. Eventually, they settled on West Nile – a viral meningitis, which had severely affected the nerves in his one leg and left the other leg weak.
"Sometimes (West Nile) affects the nerves; it could affect the arms, legs, all four limbs or just one limb," Corbin said.
Corbin then had another complication. Perhaps because of the fight his body was already in, another problem was discovered. An MRI showed that he had a bulging disc and two cysts on his spine. All Corbin knows is that between his back and his legs, "I was in a lot of pain." Especially for a guy who had never been hospitalized in his life.
The next steps in the process would be to have back surgery and also start physical therapy. The physical therapy started up quickly. His back surgery was scheduled for Sept.23, a Monday. By that Friday, he was released, and started a long road to recovery, which still includes a lot of physical therapy for his leg.
Corbin said being in the hospital for those several weeks was something he’d never done before and he appreciates all the people who stopped to see him. Especially nice, he said, was the frequent visits he had from Tim Barker of Nevada, who was also hospitalized and came to his room to sit and visit nearly every day of his last week that he was there. "It was nice to have someone to talk to," Corbin said.
He made it out of the hospital in time to see his oldest son be crowned homecoming king. "I had lost 30 pounds over that month, and didn’t have much strength." But he was glad to witness that big event. And in the coming weeks, as he was still laid up at home, he recalls the efforts of everyone around him, helping him do so many things - like climbing stairs. The family finally opted to set up a bed downstairs for him to sleep in until his strength returned.
"Everywhere I went, I used a walker or a wheelchair." He even used both devices when he first returned to his teaching position on a part-time basis right before Thanksgiving.
"I haven’t had any real pain since the surgery," Corbin said, but admits that he’s stiff and sore and can fall down easily because his knee isn’t very strong in the affected leg. "At first, I dragged around my foot, because I couldn’t pick it up." But he’s now walking with more strength every day.
The main thing about going through something like this, Corbin said, is how humbling it is to have to rely on others for so much help. His co-workers, church family, friends, neighbors … everyone has been so good about helping. "You really find out who your friends are. It’s really incredible to see that."
His church held a benefit for him in Jewell, which helped cover some of his medical expenses. His brother Dennis put in a ramp and handrails for him. Mike Foley took him to physical therapy. There were many who helped, like co-workers who provided meals, which was really a Godsend to his wife.
And then there’s his principal and students at Nevada Middle School. Principal Chris Schmidt, he said, has been really helpful, "really awesome." And the kids have been good at helping him. "They know when I’m coming and they make a wider berth for me."
And almost everything he’s gone through started with one little mosquito bite.
"I don’t want to scare anybody, but let’s say you have been bit and all of a sudden you have flu-like symptoms – it would probably be a good idea to get to a doctor," he said. As for protection, Corbin is now a firm believer that little kids and older people, those near and over 50, need to put on bug spray. "Whatever you can do to keep them from biting… spray your yard if you have to … you can’t predict which (mosquitoes) have it and which ones don’t."
Corbin is one of the first people in the area to have West Nile and said he received lots of questions from the CDC, trying to figure out where it happened. And truthfully, he doesn’t know. He could have been bit locally or in Wisconsin.
Right now, his focus is on getting stronger. "I’m hoping to be back to what I was. They say if I can get there in a year or two, I’ll be O.K." So he continues to work in physical therapy on gaining the ability to do all the leg activities he was able to do before getting sick. He took a sabbatical from his middle school wrestling job this year (allowing John Pelzer to step in), but said he intends to return to his middle school track position later this year.
The biggest thing about the experience, Corbin agrees, is how it makes you take stock of your life and your own mortality. "Being a coach, you’re away from your family a lot. I’ve got a little one, and I’m not going to live forever. I need to spend more time with my family."
And, he said, he will never again take for granted how good people can be, and how good to others he wants to be. "At a time like this, people come out of the woodwork with generosity. No way can I repay all that generosity and charity, but I feel like I have to try to repay it. Not that I have to; I want to."