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Book Review:West Nile Diary: One Couple’s Triumph Over a Deadly Disease by Kathleen Gibson

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It was in mid-August of 2007 that Rick Gibson got the mosquito bite – a most unexceptional thing to happen at a picnic in Yorkton, Saskatchewan. But days later he was in the throes of such mysterious and disparate symptoms, it took a while for doctors to come up with a diagnosis – West Nile Neurological Disease (WNND). Over the next months his wife Kathleen Gibson rode the roller coaster ride of WNND with him. In West Nile Diary she tells their compelling story from the vantage point of his hospital bedside in Yorkton and the Wascana Rehabilitation Center in Regina. Using a mélange of journal entries, emails to friends and family, newspaper columns, and articles, Gibson journeys us through a six-month interlude that changes the course of this couple’s life forever.

We experience at close range the terrifying first days of Rick’s illness as he gradually loses his ability to walk, undergoes a change in personality, and even sometimes forgets his name. During rehabilitation we live the elevator ride of one day’s progress followed by the plummet of the next day’s regression. We cheer for him as he regains function, participate in Kathleen’s joy at seeing the real Rick emerge again, but wonder if he’ll have a job to return to.

Of course the book does more than just tell a story. For in the telling, Gibson touches on many topics, among them the possibility of divine healing, the purpose of sickness and pain, the beautiful people found in unexpected places, the importance of family, the need for advocacy, what really matters in life, and the key role that faith in God plays when handling such crises.

Gibson (long a successful freelance writer and editor), puts her skills to good use in this memoir. She displays the sensitivity of a poet:

I can always tell when Bus is at the keyboard. The man’s music soars to the glass roof, joins the sunshine, and becomes the spirit of optimism itself. Then it rains back down and washes over us, healing things that only music can heal.

Her penchant for detail is journalistic:

Maggie has been teaching me to help Rick transfer from bed to chair and back…. Here’s what it looks like:

Take the side arm off the wheelchair. Bend low in front of him, wrap my arms about his waist, do a lunge, front knee bent, back straight; brace legs, rock both our bodies back and forth, and then, on the count of three, HEAVE!”

She combines an eye for the humorous with the timing of a comedian. The result is welcome comic relief:

The children were especially interested in the putty….

Benjamin accepted the pile of moldable yellow rubber carefully. Hesitating at first, he began digging his fingers in and drawing them forward, just like ‘Gampa.’

Looking up, his eyes met mine. “Not poo, Nana,” he said reassuringly. “Is not poo.”

Amanda and I figured it out: He had never heard the word putty before. Likely ‘potty’ was the closest he could find in his two-year-old vocabulary.”

Gibson skilfully combines all of the above to take us past circumstances to an understanding of heart truths. Though the pirates of West Nile (her description of the disease) could have scuttled the Gibsons’ boat, they didn’t. In fact, just the opposite happened. In Gibson’s own words (from the Preface):

I’ve learned three things in my journey down the West Nile with Rick and the pirates: God is a lot stronger than I thought he was, I’m a lot stronger than I thought I was, and God can do exquisite things with broken circumstances” (p. viii).

West Nile Diary is an inspirational story that will not only encourage you to keep hope and determination alive in the worst circumstances, but will also educate you about West Nile Neurological Disease. Don’t be surprised if after reading it, you find yourself at the local drugstore or supermarket loading up on mosquito repellent.

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