Horse Heaven Hills grape grower makes steady recovery from West Nile virus

By Andy Perdue, Tri-City HeraldJuly 17, 2011 

ALDERDALE, Wash. — A little more than two years ago, Paul Champoux was at the top of his profession. By most measurements, the Horse Heaven Hills vineyard owner was one of the finest wine grape growers in the United States, perhaps the world.

Then a mosquito carrying West Nile virus bit him.

Today, Champoux remains focused on growing grapes that will turn into great wine, but his goal is to one day stand on his own two feet again.

Two years after being bitten, Champoux still uses a wheelchair to get around his house and an all-terrain vehicle to drive through the vineyards he so dearly loves.

"I'm not yet walking," he said. "My left leg is still not all the way back and can't bear my weight. It just takes time."

Evidence of West Nile virus has been found in every county in Washington. In 2009, the year Champoux was bit, the state recorded 38 cases of the virus in humans. Last year, there were two cases. None has been recorded this year.

Mostly the virus affects birds, but about one out of 10 humans bitten by an infected mosquito will get sick. Of those, most will have flu-like symptoms that last a week, but on rare occasions, victims will have extreme reactions, including losing control of their external muscles.

Champoux, 62, has spent half his life growing wine grapes.

He started in the wine grape business in 1979 with Chateau Ste. Michelle, managing the plantings at what would become Columbia Crest. A decade later, he arrived at Mercer Ranch Vineyards near Alderdale, first managing it for the Mercer family, then leasing it and ultimately purchasing it in 1996 with four winery partners and renaming it Champoux Vineyards.

In 2002, cabernet sauvignon grapes that Champoux grew produced a wine for Quilceda Creek Vintners in Snohomish that scored a perfect 100 points in Robert Parker's Wine Advocate newsletter, the world's most influential wine publication.

The 2003 cab, also primarily using Champoux's grapes, again earned 100 points. So did Quilceda's 2005 and 2007 vintages (and the 2004 and 2006 wines scored near-perfect 99s).

This level of excellence was unprecedented in American winemaking. In fact, during this period, no wine on the planet has been as successful as Quilceda Creek's wine, thanks to Champoux and his grapes.

All the greatness and all the accolades mattered little to Champoux on July 17, 2009.

He doesn't even remember the mosquito that bit him while he was walking through his vineyard. But the incubation period for West Nile virus is four to 14 days, so he probably was bitten around the Fourth of July. By July 14, he began feeling ill. His joints and muscles ached. It felt like the flu, so he went to Good Samaritan Hospital in Hermiston, Ore., where he was told to drink plenty of fluids and take aspirin.

He kept feeling worse. By July 16, his wife, Judy, had to help in into bed because he was too weak to do it himself.

When Champoux woke up July 17, his muscles no longer worked, and he was paralyzed. Ten minutes after his wife called 911, the ambulance from the volunteer Alderdale fire department was whisking him back to Good Samaritan, where he immediately was flown to Oregon Health & Science University in Portland.

It took 13 days to diagnose what was wrong. The doctors didn't know if it might be Lou Gehrig's disease or multiple sclerosis.

"They were looking at West Nile -- plus 20 other things," Champoux said. "It is pretty scary when you don't know what your battle is against."

Meanwhile, Champoux quite literally could not move a muscle.

"I couldn't move any of my extremities," he said. "It shut down my muscles."

During those first two weeks, his wife rarely left his side.

"I thought I could quite possibly lose my husband, my best friend and life partner," she said.

Those first 13 days were frightening, as the doctors ran test after test to try to figure out what was wrong.

"The first two weeks, I slept in Paul's room, not wanting to leave for a minute," Judy said.

Four weeks after arriving at OHSU, Champoux was transferred to Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland to begin rehabilitation. By that point, he could move his wrists but nothing else. He could feel a trace of his muscles trying to do something, and that gave him hope. But rehab didn't go well, and three weeks later, he was taken by ambulance back to Portland for five days.

While he was at OHSU the second time, doctors did nerve-conductivity studies, running electrical charges through his muscles to see what the prognosis for recovery might be.

"Everything was still hooked up," Champoux said. "My neurologist said it would take time, but there was no reason not to come back to 100 percent. We took that and ran with it."

He returned to his remote home in the Horse Heaven Hills, where his wife had set up a hospital bed, exercise equipment for rehab and 24-hour nurse care. After a few weeks, a physical therapist would come to the house every few days, and muscles in his legs began to react the way he expected.

"It's been a battle centimeter by centimeter to get back to some sort of normalcy."

Meanwhile, Champoux's famous grapes were ripening. Still mostly paralyzed, he directed harvest from his bed.

"My mind was still working, so I would talk to my crew with Judy holding the phone to my ear."

His production foreman, with whom he has worked for 25 years, took over his physical duties, and his entire crew stepped up.

Three of the wineries he grows for do their own sampling, but the vineyard's other 15 clients depend on Champoux's expertise and taste buds to decided when to harvest, so his crew would bring grapes for him to sample. White wine grapes were ready to be picked just two days after Champoux arrived home from OHSU, and harvest finished by the end of October.

"The grapes turned out well, which proved I have excellent people working for me," he said. "We did all this with my arm propped on a pillow while I talked to winemakers."

By the end of 2009, Champoux still was too weak to even lift a wine glass. But that didn't deter him -- he simply used a straw instead.

"Paul is very brave and very patient," said Alex Golitzen, owner of Quilceda Creek and a close friend of Champoux. "He has handled all of this beautifully. He's a very optimistic person."

In 2010, Champoux worked on recovering. Every day was spent exercising and rehabilitating. He lifted weights and used parallel bars to try to learn how to walk again. His background as an elite athlete in high school helped, as he knew what kind of effort it would take to get back to where he was.

"You know you have to work hard to be in shape," he said. "You have to sweat to be good at what you do, and you know it will be painful. I had a good background to be able to push myself to get better."

By last summer, he used a contraption to hoist him into the passenger seat of his pickup, and Judy would drive him around the vineyards so he could see what was happening and make farming decisions. It was a good thing, too, because 2010 was a difficult vintage that needed all of Champoux's expertise to get through with high-quality grapes.

By this February, he ditched the equipment that would lift him in and out the truck because he didn't need it anymore. Now, he's able to lift himself from his wheelchair to his ATV and get to just about anywhere he needs in the vineyard on his own.

"I'm a farmer, and I like to get dirt under my nails," he said with a grin. "The crew likes to see me out there, and it feels so much better to be able to see through my own eyes what's going on."

Champoux figures his upper body and arms are at about 90 percent of where they were before West Nile struck him. His right leg is at about 60 percent strength, and he can stand on it for about 10 minutes, while his left leg is at perhaps 40 percent and will buckle if he tries to put much pressure on it.

"I just keep working at it. I won't see much improvement for a while, then I'll see a lot of progress all at once," he said.

Through all of this, Judy has been his champion and advocate, making sure he's received the best care possible and pushing him when he's needed it.

"She's my hero, there's no doubt about it. Without her, this would have been a much bigger battle. She's never gotten tired of it. I guess she likes me," he said with a hearty laugh.

Twice a week, Judy brings him to Richland for water therapy, and he can walk when he is in the pool.

It also is not far from winemaker Charlie Hoppes' facility, and sometimes he uses the opportunity to stop by and taste wine made from his grapes.

"I am so proud of my husband for his courage and determination," Judy said. "We were not going to let this define the rest of our lives. From holding up his arm so he could brush his own teeth, exercising every day in bed while we were at OHSU and doing physical therapy every day once we got home, it has paid off. His full recovery is near."

As Champoux works to recover, his vines are going through their own fight. A sudden freeze last November devastated his vineyard, and his crop this year will be down by about half. One 30-acre block will need to be replanted, and the winemakers who rely on his award-winning fruit will have fewer grapes to work with this fall.

The parallels between Champoux and his precious vines are not lost on him.

"These vines have been injured, and they need time to recover. In some areas, we will need to start over. We're kind of holding hands through this repair."

Meanwhile, he keeps a wary eye out for mosquitoes. He and Judy vigilantly keep the areas around their home sprayed, and they wear repellent when they are outside. They also make sure there is no stagnant or standing water anywhere on his 170-acre vineyard. They also provide repellent for all employees and encourage them to use it.

He has encountered only a couple of mosquitoes since he was bitten two years ago, and he said he always thinks, "I'm going to kill that SOB" when he sees one.

Through it all, Champoux has been able to maintain his sense of humor, and he knows that has helped.

"I've had no days where I've felt sorry for myself. I've not allowed myself to get down. Feeling bad for yourself doesn't help one little bit," he said. "I ain't giving up."

* More information from the state Department of Health on West Nile virus, visit this link — http://1.usa.gov/westnilevirus.

* Andy Perdue is editor of Wine Press Northwest magazine, a publication of the Tri-City Herald. He can be reached at editor@winepressnw.com.

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