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Case May Be 1st Nile Death in L.A. County

Preliminary tests show that a Northridge woman, 91, who died Friday had contracted the mosquito-borne virus.

August 09, 2004|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

A 91-year-old Northridge woman who died last week may have been the third California resident -- and the first in Los Angeles County -- fatally stricken by West Nile virus, a hospital spokeswoman said Sunday.

The woman, Hester Martin, died early Friday in a convalescent home after being bitten by mosquitoes in the backyard of her son's home on Olympia Street in Northridge, her family said Sunday.

Martin was tentatively diagnosed with the disease by doctors at Kaiser Permanente Panorama City Medical Center, where she was taken July 31 after suffering from flu-like symptoms, according to her son, Dick Martin, and Kaiser spokeswoman Linda Quon.

The results of a blood test must still be confirmed by officials from the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, Quon said.

West Nile virus, which is fatal in fewer than 1% of human victims, is usually spread by mosquitoes that feed on infected birds. In California, more than 100 people have been infected this year, and health officials are bracing for more infections this month and in September, which are especially active mosquito-breeding times.

Experts, meanwhile, are debating whether California communities should continue with limited ground-level spraying or begin blanketing larger areas with aerial pesticides, a controversial tactic employed after a West Nile epidemic began killing victims on the East Coast in the late 1990s.

Dick Martin, 63, said Sunday that he had seen some other disturbing signs on his street that might indicate the presence of the virus. In the last month, he said, neighbors have found two dead crows -- birds that are known carriers of the disease.

Martin said he plans to contact the county mosquito control office and Los Angeles' street maintenance staff this week to ask them to do something about mosquito larvae breeding in the stagnant waters in his street's gutters.

"I don't know that we're worried," he said. "But we're going to be cautious."

About 80% of West Nile victims don't know they've contracted the disease. Typical symptoms include dizziness and headaches.

About one in 150 people who get the disease become very sick, and people over 50 are particularly vulnerable.

Last month, Morris Sternberg, 75, of San Bernardino County died of the disease after two weeks in a coma. Fullerton resident James Damiano, 57, died in June. He had been sick for years before contracting the virus.

Martin said he began noticing something wrong with his mother around the end of July. She seemed overly tired, and she wasn't eating much. She was taken to the hospital July 31 and tested. The doctors thought she might have a viral infection, her son said.

The next day, she returned to the Northridge home where she had been living with her son and daughter-in-law for five years. But the couple noticed that her condition was worsening. She was having headaches, dizziness and vision problems, and she went to bed one night without watching her favorite TV show. At times, her body convulsed "like someone was chilling her to death," her son said.

She went back to the hospital Aug. 2 for more tests. She died Friday, a few days after transferring to Rinaldi Convalescent Hospital in Granada Hills. That day, Dick Martin said, her doctor called and said the tests showed that she had West Nile virus.

Martin described his mother as a pious, stoic woman who had survived four bouts of cancer and two broken hips. Despite her medical history, her son said she was relatively active for a 91-year-old, enjoying occasional forays to the backyard.

"She was a tough person," he said. "She'd been through a lot, and a lot of it she faced on her own."

Hester Martin moved to Los Angeles from Fort Wayne, Ind., with her family in 1919 at age 7. Her parents moved to the area so a sibling could attend a well-regarded school for the blind.

After attending Los Angeles High School and community college, Hester Martin sold high-end stationery at stores such as Bullocks Wilshire, waiting on clients including John Wayne and Nancy Reagan, said her daughter-in-law, Jacki Martin.

Hester Martin moved to Northridge with her husband and two sons in the late 1950s. Her husband left the family around 1960, and her youngest son, John, died in a motorcycle accident in 1985, Dick Martin said.

In recent years, she focused most of her energy on volunteer work at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, filling orders for Christian books.

"Her death is very bittersweet, because she's no longer with us, but she is with the Lord," Dick Martin said. "She has a new body now -- no diseases."

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