Mosquito bite a life-changing experience

Contacting West Nile Virus forced Jean Keele to retire early from her career, but opened the door to discovering a new artistic talent.

Looking at her artwork, one would think Jean Keele had been painting forever. In fact, Keele discovered her talent a bit over two years ago, after a simple mosquito bite changed the course of her life. It was a bite Keele got sitting on her beloved, spacious terrace at her Bayview and Eglinton avenue condo.

“A few days after being bit, I went for a walk down the street and I came back absolutely exhausted, every muscle ached,” Keele said.

Keele’s symptoms worsened to the point where she experienced tremors, severe headaches, nausea and fever.

Her fiancé took her to the emergency room at Sunnybrook Hospital three times. On the third trip, Keele was diagnosed with mengecocal enciphilitis and admitted. She also tested positive for West Nile Virus (WNV).

“I thought I was going to die. But, when you get so sick and you think you’re dying, I wasn’t scared. You’re so tired and you’re so weak, you’re just happy to close your eyes,” Keele said.

Human cases of WNV fluctuate each year in Toronto. Danny Kartzalis, manager of the vector born disease program at Toronto Public Health, says it’s impossible to say whether WNV is on the decline in Toronto, though last year there were no reported cases. Certainly, cases as severe as Keele’s are rare.

“Most of the people who have WNV have only a mild case, and may not even go to their doctor,” Kartzalis said.

Fortunately for Keele, after spending eight days in the hospital, she returned home. She relied on a walker for two months, and it took her longer to be able to read. Her tremors continued for some time, but have also stopped.

Despite this, Keele continues to live with the long-term effects of contacting WNV, including chronic fatigue and short-term memory loss.

“You turn into an (Attention Deficit Disorder) child,” Keele said. “I can’t multitask, and I get easily confused.”

Keele’s disability forced her to retire from a 27-year career in educational administration. In this position, Keele worked heavily with statistical information, yet, now, even phone numbers can be impossible to remember.

“My whole life has changed in every way,” Keele said.

Yet two changes have been positive. For one, she got married, as scheduled, about three weeks after getting sick. Second, she became a professional artist. This happened on a trip to Mexico with her husband.

“We went past an art gallery in a village, and I picked up a brochure. I said ‘oh look, they give art classes,'” Keele said.

Keele says her husband wiped the brochure from her hands and went into the gallery to register her. While Keele ended up throwing out her first painting from those classes, she continued to paint.

“I don’t know, something clicked,” Keele said.

About one year later, Keele’s husband was back in Merida, Mexico. He took some of Keele’s paintings to a church square, where artists were selling their work.

After about two hours, he had managed to sell three paintings. In the year since, Keele has sold about 20. Despite this success, Keele sees herself as an amateur painter.

“I’m just thrilled that people like (my paintings),” Keele said. “It’s given me confidence.”

Filed by Meri Perra