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updated: 11/2/2013 11:09 AM

Fundraiser to help Elgin woman sickened by West Nile virus

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  • Alex Frerichs, 24, of Elgin gets some help from mom Annette as she does physical therapy in the family's dining room.

       Alex Frerichs, 24, of Elgin gets some help from mom Annette as she does physical therapy in the family's dining room.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Friends and neighbors the Frerichs family in Elgin have organized "Angels for Alex," a fundraiser for 24-year-old Alex Frerichs on Sunday, Nov. 10, at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Elgin. Alex contracted West Nile virus last year. She had a heart transplant in infancy, and a kidney transplant in middle school.

       Friends and neighbors the Frerichs family in Elgin have organized "Angels for Alex," a fundraiser for 24-year-old Alex Frerichs on Sunday, Nov. 10, at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Elgin. Alex contracted West Nile virus last year. She had a heart transplant in infancy, and a kidney transplant in middle school.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Annette Frerichs resigned her job to care full time for Alex.

       Annette Frerichs resigned her job to care full time for Alex.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
 

Annette Frerichs had always worried that her daughter would be exposed to mosquito-borne West Nile virus.

After a heart transplant in infancy, Alex, now 24, had an extremely weak immune system that caused her, for example, to get chickenpox three times. As a middle-schooler, she also had a kidney transplant.

Her mother meticulously sprayed their Elgin home's backyard with mosquito repellent, which she insisted Alex wear on her belt clip.

Still, in summer 2012, Alex contracted the virus her mother so feared, which in turn caused encephalitis, a brain inflammation. Alex was in a coma for months, followed by months in inpatient rehab.

She returned home in May, but she still has a tough battle ahead as she works on regaining her ability to move and speak.

Friends and neighbors have organized "Angels for Alex," a fundraiser Sunday, Nov. 10, at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Elgin.

The goal is to help the Frerichses with medical expenses and raise enough money to send Alex and her parents to a one-week, $1,500-per-day intensive treatment at Life Functional Neurology Center in Atlanta, said family friend Laura Houde of Elgin.

"They are such a wonderful family. You just want to do anything you can to help," Houde said.

Alex spends much of her days in a therapeutic bed set up in the family's living room, now with a view of the changing autumn leaves.

She understands everything but can only whisper, because her throat muscles, just like the rest of her body, were left weakened and stiff by the encephalitis.

When asked if she thinks she will get better, her response is a whispered but unequivocal "Yes!"

The encephalitis destroyed various parts of Alex's brain, including basal ganglia that regulate thoughts, emotion and movement, said Elgin chiropractor Joseph Baldino.

It's hard to predict how much progress Alex will make, said Baldino, who specializes in working with patients with advanced neurological disorders. "I'm always hopeful that we can get her back 80 to 90 percent."

Her mother resigned from her job in credit card services to stay by Alex's side. "I just couldn't leave her," Annette said. Her husband Steve Frerichs is a civil engineer. The couple also have 22-year-old twin boys.

Annette is in charge of daily physical therapy, which she said is no longer covered by Alex's health insurance. Annette also reads and does phonics with Alex.

Alex has made a lot of progress in the past few months, her mother said.

When she got home she could barely lift the back of a pool cue. Now she can lift 5 pounds with her right hand and 2 pounds with her left, the side most affected by the infection.

"The isolation is the hardest part," Annette said, because the family doesn't have a handicapped-accessible vehicle.

Life with Alex has been a daily gift after she was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, for which life expectancy was only 30 days, Annette said.

The resilient girl survived thanks to a heart transplant when she was 37 days. Her kidneys, strained by her heavy medication regimen, failed, so her father donated one of his.

Still, Alex grew up enjoying life like other kids.

"She was spunky and vibrant. She's just a wonderful kid. She's a fighter. She doesn't give up for anything," Houde said.

She was classified as high-functioning special needs and graduated at age 22 from the Secondary Work Experience Program at Elgin Area School District U-46.

She worked at a grocery store and had registered for child care classes at Elgin Community College just before contracting West Nile virus.

Less than 1 percent of people infected with the virus develop serious neurological illnesses, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. Most people infected have no symptoms, and one in five develop a fever with other symptoms.

Alex was among 174 residents of Cook County who contracted West Nile in 2012, compared to 52 people this year, according to state data. Five people died from the virus in Cook County last year, same as this year.

Annette exhorted others to take precautions against West Nile.

"You don't think it's going to get to you -- and it can," she said. "If you're lucky to survive, it's not easy to overcome."

Both Alex and her mother say they're not angry at how life has turned out for a girl who had to fight so much from the day she was born.

"I'm just thankful that she's here," Annette said, her eyes welling up. "It could have been a lot different."

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