West Nile Strikes Tallahassee Resident Bob Lotane

By Jennifer Portman, News Director  |  9:23 a.m. EDT September 6, 2014

Bob Lotane, board chairman of the Capital Area Chapter of the Red Cross, appears to be the first person in Florida this year to have contracted the mosquito-borne West Nile virus.

Lotane's wife, Alissa Slade Lotane, confirmed the diagnosis Thursday, three weeks after the 55-year-old public relations professional and fitness buff was stricken with a high fever, night sweats, joint pain and eventual paralysis from the neck down.

Lotane, a vice president at Hill & Knowlton public relations firm, is now stable, but remains at Shands Hospital. His rehabilitation could take six months or more.

"I'm not sure Bob would have survived this if he had not been in such good physical condition," Alissa Lotane said by phone in Gainesville Thursday. "There is no one better equipped to fight this and get back than Bob."

The Florida Department of Health in Leon County confirmed it is investigating one possible arbovirus case, which would include West Nile and other viruses spread by mosquito bites, but does not release patient names, ages or genders because of medical confidentiality requirements. As of Saturday, DOH had no reported human cases of West Nile in the state so far this year.

During the week of Aug. 24-30, nine sentinel chickens in five Florida counties tested positive for the virus, including one in Leon County. Local officials put out an advisory Wednesday reminding the public to be vigilant in taking precautions against mosquito-borne illnesses by draining standing water and covering skin when outdoors with clothing and insect repellent.

There was one human case of West Nile virus in Leon County in 2013 and two in 2012, said officials with the local DOH office. Statewide, there were five human cases of the virus last year. In 2012 there was a national outbreak of the illness, with Florida reporting 69 human cases — the highest number since its peak in 2003. The virus, first identified in Uganda, reached Florida in 2001 and has since been found in every county. It is most commonly transmitted to humans July through September.

Alissa Lotane said she suspects her husband was bitten by an infected mosquito while working in the yard of their east-central Tallahassee home, which has a pool. His symptoms, which typically appear between two and 14 days after a bite, came on suddenly Aug. 14, when he spiked a fever and endured a couple of nights when he sweat through all the bed linens in the house. He felt a little better for a few days, went to the doctor on Aug. 18 and told him about the night sweats and a newly developing rash. The next day, he went to a Red Cross board meeting.

By the next morning, however, his legs started failing him. He fell on the bathroom floor, could not stand up and began vomiting. Alissa called 911 and he was taken to Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare where he stayed for five days as physicians tried to determine what was wrong. He initially was treated for Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare disorder in which a body's immune system attacks its nerves and causes a person to be paralyzed. His paralysis, however, continued to worsen and on Aug. 25 he was flown by helicopter to Shands.

Doctors there, too were flummoxed, first thinking Lotane might have bacterial meningitis. By Saturday, he could not move his legs or arms, breathing became difficult and he was put on a ventilator.

"The weekend was really rough, not knowing what was going on or what he had," Alissa Lotane said. "There were times I didn't think he'd make it."

On Tuesday, his team of physicians finally had a diagnosis. Results from a test taken Aug. 21 initially showed he had dengue virus, another mosquito-borne illness, but it was determined Wednesday he had contracted the West Nile virus. Alissa Lotane said a DOH-Leon County official called her that day as part of the department's investigation.

The severity of Lotane's illness is unusual. In about 80 percent of the cases, the infected person experiences no symptoms, and those who do often experience a mild illness called West Nile Fever that is characterized by headache, fever, pain and fatigue. According to FDOH, less than 1 percent of infected people develop the most severe form of the disease, which may involve meningitis and encephalitis and can cause irreversible neurological damage, paralysis, coma or death.

There are no medications to treat West Nile infection or vaccines to prevent it. Lotane still cannot move, and it will be up to his body — and his well-established strong will — now to recover.

"I think he has turned the corner," Alissa Lotane said. "I know there are still going to be plenty of challenges, but I feel he is definitely going to make it, he's going to improve."

The outpouring of support from the Lotanes' family and wide circle of friends has been immense. Alissa shared news on his Facebook page, which was flooded with messages of support and prayer.

"I know people loved him, but it's really is overwhelming," she said. "He is beloved by many people."

She called on friends to show their support for Lotane by signing up for the 7th Annual Robin Lotane Hurricane Run to benefit the American Red Cross on Oct 26. He started the event to honor his former wife Robin Lotane, who died of cancer and was active with the local Red Cross.

Friends have already coined the slogan: "Run for Bob Lotane!"

FDOH spokeswoman Sheri Hutchinson said the agency is constantly working to reduce cases of mosquito-borne illnesses by educating and encouraging people to eliminate sources of standing water, cover up and use insect repellent when outdoors. She said people should approach the use of insect repellent as they would sunscreen to avoid getting sunburned at the beach.

"The big protection people can do is avoid the mosquito bite," Hutchinson said.

Alissa Lotane said after her husband's ordeal and long recovery is over, she won't be surprised if he puts his trademark tenacity and public-relations skills to raising awareness of the dangers and seriousness of the viruses and the importance of taking precautions.

"He is the picture of health," she said. "If it can happen to Bob Lotane, it can happen to anyone."

Robin Lotane Red Cross Hurricane Run on Oct. 26

To register for the 7th Annual 5K Run visit active.com/tallahassee-fl/running/races/red-cross-7th-annual-hurricane-run-2014


Article originally posted on the Tallahassee Democrat.

Kelsey Lehtomaa