“I’ve learned that miracles still happen, and God answers prayer,” said Gail Holt of Osakis, who nearly lost her life last summer to viral encephalitis.
Viral encephalitis is a rare infection that causes inflammation of the brain. Most cases only cause flu-like symptoms, but some cases, like Holt’s, can be severe and life-threatening.
A RARE ILLNESS
It all started in 2013 on the day before Father’s Day. Holt said she smelled an awful smell and became ill with nausea and vomiting.
The next day, she felt better but still had a headache and was later told by her daughter that she was acting strangely.
That night, after returning from a swim at Club Galeon in Osakis, Holt said that she became confused and wandered away from the house.
Her husband realized she was missing and after searching for her, he called the police.
“In the meantime, I’m in a state of amnesia, so I thought I was walking in my house, but I had walked a block and a half up and I walked into this house; I’d never met the people,” Holt said.
The owner of the house recognized her as one of their neighbors and brought her back home where the police had arrived.
Holt was taken by ambulance to the Douglas County Hospital in Alexandria. After a spinal tap, doctors determined she had a brain infection and needed to be transferred to the St. Cloud Hospital.
There, a CT scan and electroencephalogram (EEG) showed that she had encephalitis.
“I suddenly had the worst headaches I’ve ever had in my life. I had a temperature of 103, and this lasted for a week,” Holt said. “I guess I was practically in a coma.”
She then started having seizures and was given another CT scan, which showed bleeding on the right side of her brain. She was put on seizure medication to help prevent more seizures.
Soon after, doctors learned what was causing Holt’s illness.
“They got the culture that I had HSV1, which is herpes simplex virus 1, which is the cold sore virus,” Holt explained.
In rare cases, this virus can travel away from the mouth where it is normally seen and can infect the brain.
An infectious disease specialist was called, and Holt was put on an anti-viral acyclovir 21-day IV to knock out the infection.
Her illness was so severe at one point that a doctor wanted to put her on a respirator to help her breathe. When her husband heard this, he called the 700 Club and Prayer Watch to ask for prayers for his wife.
Holt said that she believes that all the prayers from Prayer Watch, the 700 Club, friends, family and church helped her to recover. The anti-viral medication worked, and she was in the hospital for one month before being released to be cared for at home.
STRONGER EVERY DAY
When Holt was released from the hospital, she still had a long road ahead of her.
In the first few months after the initial illness, she had trouble remembering, comprehending things and feeling normal emotions. She couldn’t sleep without medication, suffered seizures and had severe nausea and vomiting triggered by smells.
During that time, she became malnourished and lost more than 30 pounds, which caused the loss of large amounts of muscle in her arms and legs.
This last June, Holt had another scare when a seizure caused her to fall, leaving her hospitalized for a few days with a concussion, a fractured vertebrae and a fractured rib.
Throughout the last year, Holt has needed a lot of therapy to help repair the damage caused by the original illness and its after-effects.
“I had speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, I had the works. I had many different doctors,” she said.
Holt’s faith has also played an important role in the healing process.
“When I was so very sick, the only thing that comforted me, other than my family being there and my brother and sisters visiting, was the Bible verses that I have memorized over the years,” she remembered.
“It’s really a miracle that I survived because so many people don’t, and I could have had a really bad outcome. It definitely was divine intervention.”
Holt has enjoyed singing and writing religious music for most of her life and has performed many solos and duets with her husband at weddings, funerals, church services and other events. She regained her ability to sing only a few weeks ago and was able to sing a solo at Osakis Lutheran Church like she did before her illness.
As a retired physician’s assistant, Holt said she has always led a healthy lifestyle and is very into prevention, but she realized a healthy lifestyle isn’t always enough.
“Sometimes, you can do everything you know to help your health and to have a healthy lifestyle, but something happens like what I experienced, or it could be genetic, where you have no control over it. It was a very humbling experience,” she said.
Holt is still regaining strength and will likely be on seizure medications for the rest of her life, but she said she has been able to learn from her experience and has gained a new perspective on life.
“I realized the fragility of life. You know, you can be healthy one day and then you could be gone the next, or you could be very seriously ill,” she said. “Every morning I’m thanking God that I have another day to live.”
Holt grew up around Osakis, and went to college in Minnesota. In 1980, she and her husband, Curt, moved to Maui, where she was a physician assistant and he was a pharmacist.
Since retiring several years ago, they spend their summers in Osakis and winters in Maui.
Holt has three daughters, one son, several grandchildren and one great-grandchild.