Personal Essay: Remembering West Nile Virus

When I was around 14 or 15, everybody was afraid of getting West Nile Virus. At least, I think everyone was afraid of getting it. My yiayia was scared enough for everyone in the United States combined. From what I can remember, the disease is transmitted through mosquitoes that have bitten dead birds. If you listened to my yiayia, you got a mosquito bite and you were as good as dead. When she wasn’t busy dodging tiny infected insects, my yiayia was cultivating one of the most beautiful gardens in St. Louis. She was renowned for it in all the major garden guilds and worked tirelessly on it until her Alzheimer’s became too crippling. This dedication to her garden required her to spend a lot of time outside, where, sadly, the mosquitoes also tended to inhabit. This was probably the biggest catch-22 of her life. If she went outside she would get West Nile but if she stayed inside her garden would wither and die.

At this point I should mention something stereotypical about my Greek family. My mom, sister and I live across the street from my grandparents. We are sort of a mix between “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” It can be nice living across the street from relatives, but also can lead to some very interesting situations, such as the following incident. I clearly remember walking in our front room and glancing outside. What I saw stopped me in my tracks.

There was my yiayia, in what I can only describe as a makeshift beekeeper outfit. Her ensemble began with tennis shoes with her pants tucked into knee high socks. The crazy continued up her body with a turtleneck tucked into her pants as well as mid-arm length gloves. On her neck she had a bandana (just incase the nasty bloodsuckers could get through the turtleneck I suspect) and on her head a huge sunhat with netting over her face. To her, this was the perfect protection to guard against catching the dreaded disease. To my mother, it was a recipe for her mother to get heat stroke. After she caught a glimpse of her antics out the window, she dashed out the front door screeching at my yiayia to go inside. Yiayia refused and they didn’t talk the rest of the day. My mother, being the good daughter she is, tried to find a remedy to my yiayia’s irrational fear of West Nile. She went to the Alpine Shop and found a work suit with bug repellent sewn into the fabric. Both of us thought this was the solution to all of our problems.

We were wrong.

Of course, we should have expected her completely rational explanation for why she couldn’t possibly wear the clothes we bought her. After all, the clothes were made in China and who knows what sort of chemicals they use in the repellent they make there. It seemed futile and reckless to point out to her that the spray she normally used was most likely also made in China.

Thankfully after that summer, the scare of West Nile died down and we could get on with our lives. At least, until SARS hit the newswaves…


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