Politics & Government

Former U.S. Sen. Hagan recovering from encephalitis caused by rare tick virus

FILE – U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan acknowledges the crowd upon her introduction at the 147th Annual Session of the General Baptist State Convention on October 29, 2014, at the Greenville Convention Center in Greenville, N.C. Hagan was recently diagnosed with encephalitis, a disease likely caused by a virus that leads to inflammation of the brain.
FILE – U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan acknowledges the crowd upon her introduction at the 147th Annual Session of the General Baptist State Convention on October 29, 2014, at the Greenville Convention Center in Greenville, N.C. Hagan was recently diagnosed with encephalitis, a disease likely caused by a virus that leads to inflammation of the brain. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Former U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., is recovering from encephalitis, inflammation of the brain, caused by a rare virus spread by ticks from animals to humans, according to an update Saturday from her doctor and family.

Recovery from viral encephalitis varies case by case, with differing symptoms, treatment outcomes, and long-term impact. Encephalitis can inflict long-term brain damage, affecting speech, vision, memory and muscle control. Most cases, though, can be treated quickly and patients are able to fully recover, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center.

The family knows encephalitis recovery is a long process but is pleased with the progress Hagan has made in the last three weeks she’s been at the Shepherd Center hospital in Atlanta, said her husband Chip Hagan on Saturday in a statement to McClatchy. The Shepherd Center specializes in spinal cord and brain injuries. The non-profit hospital is recognized as a leader in neurological and neuromuscular research and draws more than half of its patients from out of state, according to its website.

Hagan’s doctor in North Carolina is William Powers at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in the neurology department.

Chip Hagan said he and his family are grateful for the support and expressions of concern they’ve received since Kay Hagan was diagnosed about two months ago.

While Hagan is in specialized rehabilitation care, her friends and former colleagues in North Carolina said they are hopeful the vibrant politician, wife and grandmother they know will make a full recovery.

“The last I heard, she was alert and awake. She’s a very special lady and has always been a fighter,” said Walter Dalton, former N.C. lieutenant governor.

Dalton has kept up with Hagan’s condition through talking to some of her former U.S. Senate aides. He’s known two other people to contract encephalitis. One, a past neighbor, made a full recovery, he said. The other, a friend of his family, required ongoing, intense medical assistance for life.

“The spectrum varies greatly . . . (Hagan) has been in our prayers constantly,” Dalton said.

Hagan, 63, is from Greensboro. Chip and Kay Hagan have three adult children.

A former state lawmaker, Hagan occupied a desk beside Dalton on the floor of the N.C. Senate, where Hagan served for 10 years from Guilford County.

Before running for office, Hagan was an attorney and a banker. She earned a law degree from Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Hagan, whose maiden name is Ruthven, comes from a prominent business and political family in Florida. Her uncle, former U.S. Sen. Lawton Chiles, Jr., assisted her campaign. Chiles, a Democrat, also served as governor of Florida.

From N.C. state politics, Hagan, a Democrat, went on to be the second woman elected to the U.S. Senate from North Carolina.

In 2014, she lost her re-election bid to Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis but stayed in Washington, D.C., as a consultant with the option of working as a Capitol Hill lobbyist with one of the nation’s most well-known firms, Akin Gump. Hagan has most recently been an Akin Gump public policy adviser for a range of industries, including health care and banking.

A return to work after encephalitis is possible, depending on the severity of the viral disease and how quickly treatment began after onset.

Researchers estimate around 20,000 cases of encephalitis occur annually in the United States. Recovery is typically long-term, with some patients experiencing lasting physical, emotional and mental changes.

Hagan’s husband Chip recently connected to a support, advocacy and awareness group founded by an encephalitis survivor in Vancouver, Canada. Wendy Station, president of Encephalitis Global, said she reached out to Chip Hagan and offered him the advice and information that’s helped hundreds of others who have contacted her group.

“Most illnesses have a beginning, a middle and an end. Encephalitis does not work that way. After a brain injury, you are recovering for the rest of your life,” Station, 61, said in an interview with McClatchy this week.

Doctors nearly missed Station’s encephalitis in 1999 in a visit to the emergency room with her husband. The staff, she said, thought she had the flu – something doctors often mistake the first signs of encephalitis as.

Her husband wouldn’t leave the hospital, she said, insisting Station’s symptoms weren’t just a common flu. Days before, Station had left her municipal government job early with a severe headache. Her memory was hazy and common activities were confusing, she said. Her temperament suddenly turned grumpy and “short-fused.”

A hospital intern overheard Station’s husband explaining her medical issues. Station said the intern was the first to mention encephalitis.

“They tested me and my life was saved,” she said.

Station was 44 when she was diagnosed. After being in the hospital for four weeks, she returned home but needed around-the-clock assistance from her parents and family.

“I looked great. I could walk. I could talk ... But my thoughts just weren’t working right,” she said of recovery.

One day at home, recovering, Station made a cup of coffee for her father. In the kitchen, she couldn’t remember which drawer held the spoons. Station first looked in the oven, then the freezer, then headed for the back door to look outside. But, her mother intercepted her and showed her the spoon drawer.

“That was a piece of knowledge I had lost,” Station said. “That was the first of many, many situations.”

Slowly, Station has resumed her ability to travel, cook and live mostly-independently. But, she said, her personality has changed dramatically since encephalitis and she takes anti-anxiety medicine, which she’s been able to reduce the dosage of gradually.

“You are often left with a chemical imbalance in your brain ... The damage is done,” she said.

In that way, Station said, encephalitis is often just as hard on loved ones as it is the patient.

“My family had to get used to the new Wendy ... Wendy 2.0.”

Hagan’s support circle is standing close by and her family and friends are rallied around her, said Chris Sgro, who worked on Hagan’s 2008 Senate campaign and on her staff for 4 1/2 years as director of economic development.

Bruce Thompson, with Parker Poe law firm in Raleigh, said Hagan is one of the strongest people he knows. Thompson served as legal counsel on Hagan’s 2008 and 2014 Senate campaigns.

“Kay Hagan is loved and respected across the political spectrum in North Carolina. She is that special kind of politician who did not change at all when she got to Washington,” he said.

Others, who have never even met the former senator, are sending well-wishes to Hagan’s family from across the state.

Judith Miller, 62, in Swansboro, N.C., said Hagan’s staff had a major impact on her life while Hagan was in office. Hagan helped Miller obtain disability Social Security benefits.

“It made such a difference to me to know that somebody in Washington really did care,” Miller said. “She just took such personal interest in my case. I’m thinking about her and give her family my love.”

This story was updated to include new information from Sen. Kay Hagan’s family.

Anna Douglas: 202-383-6012, @ADouglasNews