In the summer of 2019, Gregg McChesney was in great shape. At the time, the 64-year-old had even been assisting his younger brother, Mark, with some heavy labor around his farm. But when Gregg was bitten by an insect, his health began to deteriorate at an alarmingly fast pace. Within just days of the incident, in fact, the grandfather was pronounced brain dead. And, at first, no one – not even the doctors – could explain why this tragedy had taken place.
In July of that year, though, Gregg had been healthy enough to engage in work around his sibling’s homestead. The brothers had grown up on the farm in Williamston, Michigan, and Mark still lives there today along with his wife, Darlene. It’s a place in which Gregg continues to have a strong presence, too.
But Mark and Gregg weren’t just farmhands. The pair had been raised by two artists, you see, and they seem to have inherited their mom and dad’s creative flair. Mark is a keen photographer, for example, and his eye-catching work can be seen collected in his studio. Gregg, on the other hand, had a talent for painting, and this is evident from the artwork found hanging around the house.
The brothers were seemingly close, too, as they enjoyed numerous backpacking trips together over the years. Indeed, Mark has since gone on to recall a particularly memorable excursion that involved some unwanted gatecrashers to his and Gregg’s camping expedition. And in order to scare those intruders away, Gregg had apparently displayed a vicious streak.
At that time, the siblings had been on a camping trip in the Porcupine Mountains, which are located just north of Wisconsin on the edge of Lake Superior. “We had an intrusion of bears come to our campground, and [Gregg’s] reaction – he was just as mean and nasty as the bears,” Mark explained in September 2019 to Michigan-based NBC affiliate WOOD-TV. “So the bears went up the trees. They were like, ‘Who is this guy?’”
Belligerence wasn’t Gregg’s default setting, however, and Mark would further explain that his brother had been a man who had been quiet much of the time. Nevertheless, Gregg did deliver a speech that lasted just short of half an hour at his kid brother’s wedding. He also composed a poem that currently hangs in the kitchen of the men’s childhood home, with that verse beginning, “Life takes twists and turns” – words that now hold a haunting truth for the McChesneys.
You see, in summer 2019, Gregg was helping his younger brother make some alterations on his land. His sibling explained during the conversation with WOOD-TV, “Late July, [Gregg] was here at the farm helping me put docks in at the pond.” But things took an unexpected and dramatic turn when the 64-year-old was bitten by an insect.
More specifically, Gregg was ambushed by a pest that often lies around residential buildings. Even a small amount of water – such as that found in gutters or a birdbath – can be an attractive breeding ground for this particular nuisance. Yes, Gregg suffered a mosquito bite. And as most people are aware, mosquitoes can make humans very ill indeed.
The list of diseases and viruses that mosquitoes can carry is a long one, although perhaps the most widely known are yellow fever, Zika, dengue and, of course, malaria. And while these ailments may not be contagious, they can nevertheless be easily spread when a female mosquito bites a second target after feeding on an infected source.
You see, while male mosquitoes live on an entirely plant-based diet, the females of the species feast on blood as an essential part of their reproductive cycle. And the insects are happy to take the blood of multiple hosts – from amphibians, reptiles and even some fish to birds and mammals.
It may be easy to assume, too, that the risk of mosquito-transmitted diseases is confined to certain areas of the world. For instance, the Zika virus had only ever been diagnosed around equatorial regions in Asia and Africa during the 1950s. Somewhat alarmingly, though, an outbreak of the condition was recorded in Brazil in 2015.
Similarly, yellow fever is more prevalent in South America and Africa than the U.S., meaning vaccinations for the disease are compulsory for travelers heading to countries in those regions. But while yellow fever and the Zika virus may be more common in certain parts of the globe, mosquitoes can be found almost everywhere.
That said, mosquitoes do not like cold climates, and so none of the insects can be found in Antarctica or areas with polar or subpolar climates such as Iceland. And although mosquitoes can survive in colder regions such as Greenland, Canada and northerly parts of Europe, they do so only by pausing their lifecycles.
In these more frigid parts of the world, mosquitoes in the pupal stage can survive if they are in deep enough water. Then, as the ice starts to fracture, the pupa transforms into a fully-fledged mosquito. It is water, in fact, that is essential to the insect’s breeding and lifecycle.
In standing water, a female mosquito will typically produce clusters of between 100 and 400 eggs in what are known as “rafts.” Some species, by contrast, lay eggs one by one. In either case, though, larvae will ultimately emerge within just three days.
And anywhere that contains standing water can become a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Most often, areas of neglect such as disused swimming pools, drains and gutters, water tanks and untended bird baths turn into hotspots for the insects.
It’s on the surface of this stagnant water, in fact, that mosquito larvae live. The creatures breathe through biological tubes known as siphons while feeding on microorganisms and other tiny living particles. And during this stage, the larvae will molt four times over a few days or weeks before reaching their next form.
During the larvae’s final shed, you see, pupae are formed. These immature insects can live on the water, as they are able to breathe through pipes on their backs. Then adult mosquitoes form over several days before they emerge onto the water’s surface – where they stay until they have gained the strength to fly.
And when mosquitoes are fully grown, they typically spend a great deal of time among vegetation. It’s on these plants that the males feed, in fact, although as previously mentioned females must instead consume blood before they can start new lifecycles. As Gregg helped his brother with the docks, then, a female mosquito acted on its instincts and took a bite out of the grandfather – with dire consequences.
Yes, while Gregg had been relatively fit in the summer of 2019, that all soon changed. You see, shortly after he had worked on his brother’s property, the 64-year-old was taken ill. And Gregg’s decline was rapid and dramatic enough to not only baffle his family, but also the doctors who treated him.
Mark later explained how his big brother had been prior to the incident, saying to WOOD-TV, “He was a perfectly healthy, happy human being.” As it happened, though, his elder sibling had received more than just a nuisance mosquito bite. For one, the insect had carried a disease that had ultimately affected Gregg in a terrifying manner.
“Within a matter of nine days, [Gregg] went from perfectly healthy to brain dead,” Mark went on to recall. “All of a sudden he had a seizure. And [the] next thing you know, he’s in the E.R. and he just never came out of it.” To begin with, medical professionals could offer no explanation for the grandfather’s rapid decline, either.
Mark went on to reveal to WOOD-TV, “Right off the bat, we were like, ‘How could this happen? What did happen?’ We just didn’t know. And the doctors were just doing everything they could to try to say it was this or that, and they just couldn’t figure it out.” Finally, though, the cause of Gregg’s shocking condition was identified.
Specifically, Gregg had contracted a disease called eastern equine encephalitis, or EEE. And as the name suggests, the virus usually affects equine creatures such as horses. Yet it’s perhaps no surprise that medics initially had a hard time identifying the grandfather’s illness, as EEE’s symptoms can be almost identical to those of other conditions.
According to health website Medical News Today, there may be no obvious signals of EEE for several days while the virus incubates. And when the condition does manifest itself, its effects – such as headaches, nausea and fever – can be chalked up to many other different causes. When the infection takes hold, though, deterioration can be rapid.
It’s believed that as many as 96 percent of those who contract EEE may never show any symptoms. However, of the remaining 4 percent of those afflicted, up to two-thirds will experience irreversible – and usually very extreme – brain damage. And for the remaining individuals, the consequences are even worse.
The EEE virus seems to be on the rise in the U.S., too. As of September 2019, EEE had been diagnosed that year in 21 people across six states in the east and northeastern regions of America, according to the Associated Press. Of those individuals, moreover, five succumbed to their infections and passed away. And although those numbers may seem relatively low, they are still noticeably higher than the seven cases and three fatalities that are chalked up to EEE on average per year.
Naturally, then, this increase in identified cases of EEE has left experts with cause for concern. Some specialists have even likened the upswing to outbreaks of diseases such as the West Nile and Zika viruses. And there may be reason to worry, too. You see, before 2019, the highest number of recorded EEE cases in a single year in the U.S. had been 15 in 2012.
And figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) illustrate the surge in EEE. The organization’s data shows, for example, that in 2017 there were only five recorded cases of the disease, while there were just six the following year. In 2019, however, that number was 38 by mid-December.
Of those 38 people with EEE, 15 passed away – with Gregg among them. And owing to this upturn in EEE cases, experts from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) have speculated whether the disease may yet provoke an epidemic. In an article published in The New England Journal Of Medicine in November 2019, specialists at NIAID claimed, “This year’s EEE outbreaks may thus be a harbinger of a new age of arboviral (mosquito-borne virus) emergencies.”
However, there is still little to be done when it comes to taking measures to prevent an outbreak of EEE. You see, while an equine vaccine against the disease exists, a safe and successful variant for humans is still under development. The patterns of EEE outbreaks are rather inconsistent to boot, making target demographics for vaccination hard to predict.
And while speaking to the Associated Press in September 2019, the CDC’s Mark Fischer revealed that there was no obvious cause for the sudden increase in EEE cases. Nevertheless, he claimed that the number of people who are affected by EEE does seem to rise every few years. It appears, too, that the disease tends to make itself known in certain areas.
In particular, EEE is most commonly diagnosed in eastern states as well as those around the Gulf Coast region – possibly because of the swampland that is prevalent in these regions. And while few people who contract the disease will ever display symptoms, the CDC claims that those aged under 15 or over 50 are most susceptible to the virus’s more serious effects.
Most notably, a young Rhode Island girl was diagnosed with EEE in August 2019. At the time, six-year-old Star Jackman was on her second day of school; when she returned home that afternoon, however, the youngster complained of a headache.
Then, just days later, Star’s parents called an ambulance after their daughter experienced vomiting and a fever. And as the six-year-old was undergoing treatment at the hospital, doctors subsequently diagnosed her with EEE. Yet while Star’s initial symptoms ultimately improved enough for her to return home, the young girl apparently hasn’t emerged completely unscathed from her ordeal. According to a September 2019 article in The Providence Journal, it’s feared that she may even have lasting brain damage.
The newspaper reported, for instance, that Star struggled to identify her parents; during her stay in hospital, she would also supposedly confuse her mom with her sister. And, more recently, the six-year-old has reportedly not only been struggling to walk, but she has also experienced seizures and fatigue.
Plus, while experts at NIAID believe that vaccination would be the most effective way to combat EEE, such a scheme is unlikely to emerge any time soon. Owing to both the unpredictability of outbreaks and the rarity of infection, you see, there is currently little impetus to create an EEE inoculation.
Still, the NIAID specialists do encourage closer monitoring of EEE’s presence. They told The New England Journal Of Medicine, “In the absence of vaccines or specific treatments, state and local health departments can provide early warning of imminent human infections by surveilling equids, birds and mosquitoes.” Even so, their recommendations are at the mercy of funding availability.
With the lack of a viable EEE vaccine, then, people are encouraged to protect themselves from mosquito bites by applying a DEET-enriched insect repellent and keeping their arms and legs covered. Properties should be cleared of any stagnant water, too, while any door and window screens on the home should be undamaged. Any outdoor dining, meanwhile, should take place under either a net or a fan.
This advice sadly came too late for Gregg, of course, but the 64-year-old is nevertheless remembered fondly by Mark, who recalled to WOOD-TV, “[Gregg] was a great guy. He loved life.” The grandfather’s younger brother added of his sibling, “I don’t think he would have any regrets. I don’t think so, because he found himself.”