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Joplin teen's recovery continues from rare, mysterious virus

Billy Sticklen is putting his life back together one step at a time. For a young man who went from a wheelchair to walking in six months, he's taken a lot of steps both physically and emotionally.

"It's all real and it's all him,'' said his mother, Dawn Sticklen, of Joplin. "It's all in increments. He will do something today that he could not do yesterday. You build on that. But it's slow and it's hard. It's only been a few months, but it seems like a lifetime.''

Billy has two floaties under his arms to hold him up as he swims in the heated pool at the Joplin Family Y South. He kicks his legs and pushes out with his arms. He struggles to make his left arm work. His effort pushes him a few inches forward in the swimming lane. But inches add up. By the end of his one-hour session with his trainer, Fred Snavely, he has completed two laps.
Last summer was a typical one for Billy, who is now 14. He played golf and went to the movies with friends. Over the Labor Day weekend, he and his two siblings caught colds.

"I took them to the doctor. He gave them all antibiotics,'' Dawn Sticklen said. "Billy also had an ear infection. He got a stronger prescription. About a week and a half later, Billy started complaining about a headache. I told him to take some Ibuprofen and go to bed. He also had a low-grade fever.''

The next day Billy is taken to their pediatrician. His neck is sore, but there is nothing out of the ordinary. She is told he has a viral infection and that he should be checked the next day to see if his neck felt better. On Tuesday, Sept. 23, his neck is really sore. They visit a general practitioner.

"On Wednesday, Sept. 24, everything is better, but he can't raise his arms above his chest,'' she said.

Thinking he had a pinched nerve, he is taken to a local emergency room. The physician on duty performs a spinal tap. Billy is diagnosed with a viral inflammation. He is transported by ambulance to Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City.

"When your nervous systems is affected, it can impact your respiratory system. With it starting in his arms, they were concerned about how fast it was moving and whether his respiratory system would be compromised,'' she said. "By 8:30 p.m. that Wednesday, he's in the ICU at Children's Mercy. When I turn the corner in the ICU, I see this room with all of these medical people in hazmat protective gear. They were wearing the hat, the mask and gloves, and the gowns. Then I see Billy. I think - what the heck is going on?''

Dawn Sticklen would soon learn that her son was not alone and that Children's Mercy had become the treatment epicenter for a regional outbreak of Enterovirus 68, also known as EV-D68. The hospital was seeing hundreds of children with respiratory problems, including a couple that showed signs of paralysis. The virus, one of many viral strains that cause the common cold, was first identified in California in 1962. It belongs to the same genus as poliovirus, an infectious, nerve-damaging pathogen that can cause paralysis.

Read more via Joplin Globe