Julie Baker, Ridgeview Elementary School principal, says she still is recovering from the Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, which made her very ill in late May and early June of 2008. Since the rare virus was discovered in 1993, 35 percent of those infected have died.

Photo by Hans Hallgren

Julie Baker, Ridgeview Elementary School principal, says she still is recovering from the Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, which made her very ill in late May and early June of 2008. Since the rare virus was discovered in 1993, 35 percent of those infected have died.

Baker wins battle with Hantavirus; 1 year later, everything has changed

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— Julie Baker lived the adventurous life. Driving fast, riding a motorcycle, jumping in to gorges without a moment's hesitation.

All it took was one spore to change that.

When Baker, 42, Ridgeview Elementary School principal, contracted the Hantavirus in May 2008, she had no idea.

"My legs began aching, from my hips to my toes, like I had just worked out," she said. "My legs were significantly weaker - I had trouble just climbing the stairs. When I was out on recess, I had to sit down. I had no energy."

After her symptoms failed to go away, Baker sought medical attention.

"I started getting bad headaches, and at first I thought it was the flu," Baker said.

She was tested, but all the results came back negative.

"I just thought I had a cold, but the next day I felt even worse," she said. "I went to the doctor's office after hours, and had blood drawn, and I was given medication for the pain.

"But, the next day, it hit me."

The first day after school had ended, Baker was to attend a motorcycle riding course.

"There was no way I was going to miss it," she said. "When I got down there, I could barely hold up the motorcycle, and after I was there for a little while, I vomited and was rushed to the emergency room."

Baker was admitted to the hospital on a Saturday, and was transported to Grand Junction two days later. All told, she spent 15 days in the hospital.

Although the tests came back negative, Baker's symptoms - the continuous aches, vomiting and head pains - were all consistent with the Hantavirus.

According to the Center for Disease Control, Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome is a rare and potentially deadly disease.

From May 1993, when the disease was first discovered, to March 2007, there were 465 reported cases. Of those cases, 35 percent resulted in death.

"The Hantavirus affects the brain first, so I had trouble remembering," she said. "I was disoriented, and it was crazy because I didn't know what was going on."

Baker had blood drawn, and it was sent to a Hantavirus research center in New Mexico, and the tests came back positive.

"It was a different strain of the virus, so they had problems diagnosing it," she said. "But when the tests came back, they knew for sure."

As soon as the doctors knew what Baker had, her treatment began.

"My heart was monitored; all of my major organs were monitored because the virus tries to shut them down," she said. "My lungs began filling with fluid, my kidneys and liver swelled. I swelled so much I looked like the blueberry from Willy Wonka."

She was given antibiotics and had to have her lungs drained every few hours.

"My heart was doing funny things, and I'm not sure if my liver will ever be the same," she said. "But the liver usually takes the longest to heal."

The scariest part of her ordeal was hearing from her mother, Gail Severson, and sister, Terri Jourgenson, how she had been.

"After the fact, my mom and sister recounted how bad off I was during those 15 days," she said. "And I can hardly remember anything - everything I can remember my mother or sister told me. And that's scary - not being able to remember all that time."

The Hantavirus is transmitted through infected mice feces.

Although Baker isn't sure how she contracted the virus, she believes it could have been when she was hiking, or from two mice found living in the engine compartment of her car.

"It could have been either, or it could have been mice in the garage," she said. "All it takes is one little spore."

Because Baker was one of only a few people who have contracted the virus, she was in uncharted territory.

"Because it's so rare and so deadly, there aren't a lot of references," she said. "The helicopter was ready to take me to New Mexico.

"I really am lucky to be alive."

Eventually, Baker's lungs stopped filling with fluid, and her body began fighting back.

"I've always been someone who healed faster," she said. "And when they told me that I wouldn't be completely healthy until Halloween or Thanksgiving, I thought I would be better before then. But, it really did take me that long."

For the next four months, Baker recuperated slowly.

"I lost 23 pounds - I looked like a skeleton," she said. "But I started gaining weight and feeling stronger."

After surviving the virus, Baker has a new appreciation for her health.

"We all like to think we are invincible, but after something like this happens, you wake up," she said. "You never think something like this could happen to you. Now, I have more appreciation for my friends and family because I realize it can happen to you.

"I think I appreciate my life to the extent that it should be. It really was a life-changing experience - it realigned my priorities."

Baker has scar tissue in her lungs, and still vomits unexpectedly, but most of her changes have been positive.

"It's matured me a little bit, I'm more precautious now," she said. "We only have one life, one body, and we need to be cautious."

Baker, who admits to having too many speeding tickets, said slowing down and being more cautious has been beneficial to her.

"Never considered myself afraid, never thought twice about anything," she said. "I've been forced to slow down in all areas of my life, and, for me, that's a good thing."

Baker now carries a bottle of bleach solution - the main weapon in the fight against the Hantavirus. She advises anyone who may come in contact with mice, or dusty places where mice live to do the same.

"Places with a lot of dust are the ideal environment for the Hantavirus," she said. "I get anxious for myself, for my kids, family, friends whenever they are exposed to places where mice have been."

Baker's cautious attitude has translated to other aspects of her life.

"The other changes have been subtle but profound," she said. "I'm better at managing stress, and this has been the best year of my professional career."

Ben Bulkeley can be reached at 875-1795 or bbulkeley@craigdailypress.com.

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