J.R. Krist, left, joins his wife Brittany and son Lincoln on Wednesday, April 29, to talk about his experiences recovering from hantavirus. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

J.R. Krist says he owes his life to his wife and astute health-care professionals.

The Spanish Valley man fell ill in March with the first confirmed local case of hantavirus in recent memory, and although he’s doing well now, Krist knows that the outcome in his case was rare. He said he’s heard that 60 to 80 percent of other people who come down with the disease don’t survive.

The uncommon respiratory illness, which is not contagious, is caused mainly by exposure to rodents that carry the disease. In Krist’s case, he likely came into contact with deer mice at his home.

A Southeastern Utah District Health Department official told the Moab Sun News last week that a hospital in Moab made the critical decision to have Krist flown to St. Mary’s Medical Center in Grand Junction, Colorado, for life-supportive treatment. But Krist said the official’s comments are inaccurate, and he wants to make sure that people give credit where credit is due.

“To give them the glory (is not true),” he said.

Krist, who works for a small, family-owned trucking company, first came down with what he assumed was a bad cold or the flu in late March.

He was sick for about a week and a half before he sought help at Moab Regional Hospital’s emergency room. He said that at the advice of the emergency room’s staff, he went to Moab Family Medicine the next day, where he said he was diagnosed with mononucleosis – an illness he previously had as a teenager.

After the diagnosis, Krist returned home for a few days, but he wasn’t feeling any better. In fact, his health deteriorated to the point that his blood oxygen level dropped to about 70 percent, compared to a normal range of 95 to 100 percent, on or around April 3.

“I can’t guarantee it, but if I went home and fell asleep that night, I probably would not have woken up,” he said.

Instead of waiting around anymore, his wife Brittany drove him off to San Juan Hospital in Monticello.

According to J.R. Krist, staffers there determined that he was in such poor condition that they made the decision to life-flight him to St. Mary’s Medical Center in Grand Junction, Colorado.

After he arrived at St. Mary’s, he said he was out of it for much of the time, as doctors there ran an array of tests on him.

“For a while, they had no idea what was wrong with me,” he said.

All the time, Brittany Krist and other loved ones were uncertain about what would happen next.

“We were just hoping he was going to come out of it,” she said. “It was a scary thing.”

When the correct diagnosis finally came back, and J.R. found out that he had hantavirus, he was on the mend.

“It’s really an act of God that you’re alive,” Brittany Krist told him.

Acting Moab Regional Hospital CEO Jen Sadoff said she cannot comment on Krist’s case due to federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy Rule regulations.

But generally speaking, she urged residents to be on the alert for possible hantavirus symptoms.

“Hantavirus is an uncommon illness and is difficult to diagnose in the early stage because it mimics many other common viral illnesses,” Sadoff said. “We want our community to understand that if they have flu-like symptoms that are not getting better or are getting worse, they should not hesitate to seek medical attention.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), early symptoms such as a fever, muscle aches and fatigue can be easily confused with influenza. However, if someone is experiencing those symptoms and a shortness of breath, and that person has a potential history of exposure to rodents, the CDC strongly suggests that they follow Sadoff’s advice.

Although there are no specific treatments, cures or vaccines for hantavirus infections, the CDC says that people whose symptoms are recognized early on may fare better. Likewise, the earlier that a patient arrives for treatment at an intensive care center, the better.

To reduce the risk of coming into contact with hantavirus-carrying rodents, the CDC suggests that people should keep their homes, workspaces or camping areas clean.

They should begin by sealing up any holes, either inside or outside their homes. In addition, they should trap rodents to help reduce the population, and tidy up after themselves, the CDC says.

If anyone stores trash or food waste inside their homes, they should keep everything in rodent-proof containers, and frequently clean the containers with soap and water. Trash, garbage and clutter should be picked up on a frequent and regular basis. Residents can also eliminate possible nesting sites outside the home by elevating hay, woodpiles and garbage cans at least one foot off the ground, and by keeping grass and shrubbery well-trimmed.

Krist said that after he returned home in mid-April, he sterilized his home.

However, he moved back out on Tuesday, April 28, because he noticed signs that the mice had returned.

“I don’t want my kids to get sick,” he said.

Krist said he has reached out to the Southeastern Utah District Health Department for help. So far, he said, he has not received it.

Ultimately, he has nothing but high praise for Dr. James Thompson and others at St. Mary’s Medical Center, as well as the staff at San Juan Hospital.

“Dr. Thompson and the nursing staff were excellent in Grand Junction,” he said. “I also want to say thanks to the Monticello hospital for knowing it was above and beyond what they could (treat) at the time.”

The couple are also grateful for the support they received from area residents.

“I want to thank the community for their prayers,” he said.

Southeastern Utah District Health Department Environmental Health Director Brady Bradford said that out of respect to Krist, he would not comment on the specifics of the case.

“He’s asked that we not speak about this in public anymore,” he said.

However, Bradford said his agency will start to pay closer attention to the potential for hantavirus cases in the area, as a result of the case.

“Maybe this is short-sighted, but it did fall off our radar because it hadn’t occurred in so long,” Bradford said.

Educating the public about the rare illness, he said, is at the top of the agency’s priorities going forward.

Hantavirus spread by rodent populations

To learn more about hantavirus, go to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s informational webpage at www.cdc.gov/hantavirus/