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New Mexico hantavirus survivor a reminder of another deadly disease

On one of the worst nights as the fever raged and the head exploded and the body ached and the lungs filled, Mark Fratrick contemplated his life and how much more of the virus-induced hell he could take.

Which is to say that in those lonely, agonizing moments in the intensive care unit at the University of New Mexico Hospital, Fratrick, 57, believed he had no life left.

So he wrote his will.

In an email he wrote on his cellphone, he detailed what to leave sister Michelle, brother Michael, girlfriend Tina, who would get his beloved dog, Enay, his beloved season tickets for the Los Angeles Rams, his 10-acre spread in Taos. He explained how to feed the cattle and chickens. He described his wishes for burial.

Then as he attempted to send what he believed would be his final email, his cellphone went haywire.

“My phone locked up,” he said. “I tried to swipe it several times. And then my whole phone lit up and went to factory settings. I couldn’t do anything.”

But he could keep trying to beat the virus.

Eighteen days after falling sick, seven of those days spent in the ICU, he did.

But the virus that had nearly killed Fratrick wasn’t COVID-19.

Mark Fratrick

Fratrick is the first and, so far, only reported case in New Mexico this year of hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, a deadly disease that gripped much of the Southwest beginning in 1993, when a deadly outbreak was reported in northwestern New Mexico.

Remember? Unlike COVID-19, the virus is not spread from human to human but from humans breathing in particulates arising from the urine, droppings or saliva of infected rodents, particularly deer mice.

From 1993 to 2017, the latest year for which data is available, 728 cases across 36 states have been reported, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

New Mexico has been the hardest-hit state, with 113 reported cases, including Fratrick’s, since 1993.

The fatality rate is 36%. Of the three cases reported in New Mexico in 2019, two died. The key to survival is early diagnosis and treatment.

That’s why Fratrick, out of the hospital since Aug. 19, is telling his story – because he doesn’t want people to forget that the virus is still out there and because it shouldn’t be so hard to obtain proper treatment.

Last month, Fratrick said, he cleaned out a mice-infested shed on his property. By Aug. 2, he started feeling mild flu symptoms. By the next morning, he was worse, his fever flaring to 102.9, every muscle in his body aching.

“It was like the flu times 10,” he said. “After a few days, I started thinking it might be corona.”

On Aug. 7, he went to his primary care doctor in Taos and was swabbed for COVID-19 – the results of which he said would not be available for seven to 14 days. No temperature or oxygen level was taken, he said, and it appeared no concern was raised when he mentioned the possibility that he had hantavirus.

Then came the headaches, like the worst hangover, like a knife being drawn across his skull.

On Aug. 10, his girlfriend, an Albuquerque physician, drove to Taos and took him to urgent care, where he was advised to go to the emergency room at Holy Cross Medical Center.

Fratrick said it was only at the insistence of his girlfriend and his sister, a nurse, that he was finally airlifted to UNMH, the leading facility in the treatment and study of hantavirus.

“I can’t say enough about the doctors and nurses and staff there,” he said. “They knew what they were doing, and they kept encouraging me to just keep breathing.”

That was not so easy. For the next seven days, time stretched on endlessly. He thought he was going to die.

“It’s the closest thing to hell I could think of,” he said.

Doctors prepared him to be treated with extra-corporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, which takes over the work of lungs by pumping the patient’s blood through a device that infuses it with oxygen. The grueling treatment is usually considered as a last resort.

But Fratrick didn’t need it. On Aug. 17, he rallied enough to be moved out of the ICU. Two days later, he was released from UNMH.

He learned later that doctors had given him a 45% chance of survival.

What saved him, he said, was the knowledgeable and dedicated staff at UNMH, the support and tenacity of his family, the prayers of a community and himself.

“I hike, I bike, stay busy on the farm, get my 10,000 steps in,” said the Air Force Reserve lieutenant colonel and retired Taos Ski Valley village administrator. “If I wasn’t in as good a shape I wouldn’t have survived.”

The recovery process is a long one. He tires easily; his muscles are like lead around his bones.

But he takes delight in small things now – a shower spilling over his head, a good sleep, a life-sustaining cherry Popsicle.

“I don’t want to make too much of it, but the colors seem more vibrant, more crisp,” he said.

He said he hopes medical providers, especially in rural areas, will brush up on hantavirus symptoms and treatments. And he hopes people remember that any place where mice do their business should be sprayed with a bleach solution before it is cleaned.

Fratrick said he got his phone working again and retrieved the will he almost emailed that night. He’s never shown it to his family. He hopes he never will.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, jkrueger@abqjournal.com, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.

 

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