When asked to name the deadliest creature in the world, not many Americans will cite the humble mosquito.
Plano resident Becky Dennis is an exception.
In 2008, the senior vice president of a global company, was five days into a business trip to India when, in the middle of a presentation, she began to experience a wave of fatigue. She soon lost her ability to speak. When it was time to get up and leave, she realized she could no longer walk.
"The room got really bright, and everything was out of focus," she told a Monday meeting of the Greater Plano Kiwanis Club. "… I get in the car, and probably after 10 minutes I was tingling all down my body. I couldn't swallow. I was really having labored breathing. I just kept calling my husband to tell him goodbye for the last time."
Upon returning to the United States, Dennis had to wait 27 months before receiving a diagnosis. Doctors finally told her she had encephalitis, a little-known inflammation of the brain that affects about 20,000 people per year. While the disease can be caused by the common herpes virus, doctors believed Dennis' case was the result of a mosquito bite received while overseas.
While Dennis' particular version of the disease is common throughout Asia and vaccinations for the disease are widespread, there are no vaccinations for the disease or West Nile virus in the United States, a fact that Dennis said makes it necessary to "push the issue" at home.
To this end, Dennis authored "Brain Wreck," a 300-page chronicle of her experience released by Majamo Publishing late last year.
"I feel like it's my purpose in life to educate, so other people don't have to go through a similar experience," she said.
Waiting for a diagnosis is not uncommon, Dennis said, since many doctors misdiagnose encephalitis as flu, complex migraine, stroke or multiple sclerosis. Those who suffer from herpes-originated encephalitis can die within days of contracting the disease.
Long-term disorders often persist in recovering patients, including debilitating headaches, concentration problems and sleep difficulties, Dennis said, and research shows more than 50 percent of encephalitis victims will not return to work.
Dennis said the recent outbreak of West Nile virus in North Texas underscores the importance of brain disease awareness, especially since 50 percent of the 800 West Nile virus cases in Texas last year were the brain-damaging and sometimes deadly neuroinvasive form of the disease.
"Here in Collin County, there were 22 cases of neuroinvasive [West Nile virus], so that means statistically 11 people probably didn't go back to work," she said. "If you broaden that to Dallas County, it was 91 people who didn't go back to work … Across Texas, there were over 800 cases of encephalitis, so it would have been over 400 people potentially not back in the workforce."
As part of her advocacy efforts, Dennis has worked with experts at the Mayo Clinic, the Johns Hopkins Encephalitis Center and the California Department of Public Health.
"I've met about 75 survivors since my diagnosis, and it's so rewarding to feel like I have something to contribute to people affected by the residuals of encephalitis or brain injury to help with new coping mechanisms and therapies that might improve their recovery," Dennis said in an email. "If I can help others through my own experience, then my life has purpose."
For information about encephalitis, visit ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002388.