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A tick bite, the Powassan virus, and MaryAnn’s struggle



More than a year and a half after a tick bite, MaryAnn Harris still breathes with a ventilator and remains nearly paralyzed.

It was Labour Day 2021 when MaryAnn Harris told her husband she was feeling tired and needed to go upstairs to lie down.

A few hours later she was feeling nauseous. She complained of double vision. Her husband, Charles de Lint, immediately called Telehealth Ontario, when the nurse told them to go straight to the emergency department.

Overnight she got encephalitis, a swelling of her brain. By the next morning, MarryAnn was in the ICU on life support, breathing with a ventilator.

“They didn’t know what was wrong,” said Charles, a popular author of fantasy novels, a three-time Aurora Award winner, and a member of Canada’s Science Fiction Writers Hall of Fame. “They assumed it was a virus of some sort. It looked like they had 70 little machines feeding her different kinds of antibiotics.”

Today, more than a year and a half after falling ill, MaryAnn hasn’t been back home. She still breathes with a ventilator and remains nearly paralyzed.

The culprit? A tick bite that transmitted the rare but increasingly common Powassan virus, a potentially deadly pathogen that caused encephalitis.

“We were never aware of the bite. We never even saw the tick,” Charles said. MaryAnn fell ill during the lockdown and the couple hadn’t travelled anywhere.

They figure she picked up the tick bite either in the yard of their Alta Vista area home or during one of their frequent walks around the community gardens in Pleasant Park. And it’s hardly the only question that can never be answered.

“If she was going to get sick,” Charles asks, “why did it have to be something so rare?”

Powassan virus was first identified in 1958 when it infected and killed a young boy in Powassan, Ont., on the outskirts of North Bay, 200 km northwest of Ottawa. Until 1998, there had been only 27 cases in all of North America. Since then, the numbers have been rising: 5-10 cases a year in the U.S. from 2010 to 2015; and 25-30 a year since. Since 2017, there have been 21 cases in Canada. Most infections occur in the northeastern U.S., Eastern Canada and the Great Lakes region.

In 2019, North Carolina Senator Kay Hagan died of Powassan virus several years after being bitten by a tick.

The virus is usually transmitted by Ixodes scapularis, commonly known as the deer or black-legged tick, the same vector for Lyme disease. While it takes 24 to 48 hours for a tick to transfer the bacteria that causes Lyme disease to its human host, a person can be infected with Powassan virus in as little as 15 minutes after the tick attaches.

Powassan symptoms appear between one and five weeks later. In most cases, the person doesn’t even know they’re infected, passing it off as a mild flu. But for an unfortunate few, the sickness can be severe. About half develop encephalitis or meningitis, leading to lifelong neurological disorders.

“There’s been a slow and steady increase in the number of cases reported,” said Saravanan Thangamani, director of the Center for Vector-Born Diseases at the State University of New York in Syracuse. “This is a rare virus. However, it is a dangerous virus. It can be fatal and those that survive can have long-term neurological consequences for the rest of their lives.”

MaryAnn Harris, 70, has been in hospital for a year and a half, partially paralyzed by Powassan virus, which she got from a tick bite in Ottawa.
MaryAnn Harris, 70, has been in hospital for a year and a half, partially paralyzed by Powassan virus, which she got from a tick bite in Ottawa. PHOTO COURTESY OF HARRIS FAMILY / POSTMEDIA

MaryAnn’s symptoms were classic Powassan: fever, headaches, vomiting, weakness, tremors, seizures and paralysis.

The disease is fatal in 10-15 per cent of cases. There is no cure, nor is there an established treatment beyond normal recuperative therapy.

Still, Charles doesn’t dwell on the disease or how MaryAnn caught it. He’s focused on the road ahead.

“Ok. She got bit by a tick. She has Powassan. She got encephalitis,” he said. “For me, I’m more interested in what’s happening now, not what happened before.”

MaryAnn’s recovery now depends on physiotherapy, but that’s been hampered by fluids that build up and constantly have to be suctioned out of her throat. Even before she got Powassan virus, she had immune problems and suffered from a build-up of fluids.

“It’s constantly in her throat and esophagus. She’s stuck on a ventilator and she’s constantly in need of being suctioned,” Charles said. “It’s an exhausting process so we’re not making a whole lot of headway with other stuff. We do exercises every day and she’s really good about it. Even when she’s exhausted she’ll still do it. But it’s just not going very fast because of these secretions.”

The couple — Charles is 71 and MaryAnn is 70 — have been together for 47 years and married for 42. With their guitar and banjo, they are well-known in Ottawa’s folk and bluegrass music scene.

MaryAnn Harris, with her husband Charles de Lint, is unable to move herself after a tick bite transmitted the rare but increasingly common Powassan virus.
MaryAnn Harris, with her husband Charles de Lint, is unable to move herself after a tick bite transmitted the rare but increasingly common Powassan virus. PHOTO COURTESY OF HARRIS FAMILY / POSTMEDIA

Charles’s novels, many of them set in the fantasy city of Newford, have a worldwide following. MaryAnn is his business manager, editor and illustrator. Her illness has left Charles with little time to write since he now spends five hours a day at Saint-Vincent Hospital, six days a week. He pays for a caregiver on the seventh.

Friends, family and fans have rallied around the couple. Musicians have visited the hospital to play for MaryAnn. A GoFundMe started to help pay for the many expenses they now face has topped $90,000. Fans have also subscribed to Charles’s Patreon account to help support his writing.

One fan, Julie Bartel, manages the GoFundMe and posts regular updates on MaryAnn’s progress on social media. Bartel, 52, grew up in tiny Orem, Utah, and as a teenager immersed herself in Charles’s fantasy novels.

“There was nothing in Orem but apple orchards and Mormons. You couldn’t even buy a coffee,” she said.

“I read Charles’s books all the way through high school. It’s not an exaggeration to say that they were a lifeline for me. That theme of estrangement — of being an outsider.”

Bartel met Charles and MaryAnn at a literary conference in Salt Lake City two decades ago and the fan turned into a friend. She’s visited them in Ottawa and together they’ve taken road trips across the U.S., guitars and banjos strapped to the roof, Charles dutifully writing on desert mornings.

“We immediately bonded over our mutual love of Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Bartel jokes.

With MaryAnn in hospital, Bartel has pitched in to help proofread some of Charles’s writing. She’s collecting “sweet thoughts” that fans email for Charles to share with MaryAnn.

“It’s hard being friends and being so far away. I’m so grateful that I can give back in some way,” said Bartel. “At least she’s able to talk now.”

She describes MaryAnn as “a rock star” who faithfully does her exercises every day, determined to get better even if her progress has been glacially slow. She marvels at Charles’s dedication and devotion to MaryAnn’s care.

“They really are the most wonderful people. It’s an amazing love story.”

Meanwhile, MaryAnn bides her time in hospital. Charles manages her care, carefully protecting her from stresses that might trigger anxiety. Unable to move herself, she uses Siri to do what she can on her iPhone.

“She’s very stoic about it, but it’s really hard,” Charles said. “There’s just not a whole lot she can do. She can listen to audiobooks and podcasts, but that’s about all. Her vision is not doubled anymore, but it’s still not great so she can’t read. She has no real movement in her limbs, so she can’t operate her phone or her iPad.

“As helpful as those items are, they aren’t as handy as one might think. MaryAnn can use Siri on her phone to listen to music or start an audiobook, for example, but she can’t necessarily make it stop: Siri can’t hear her when the music is playing.”

Through a friend, the couple was put in touch with another woman who contracted Powassan virus four years before MaryAnn and has mostly recovered. It’s a glimmer of hope.

“She’s not fully recovered, but she walks around and she’s able to garden. She’s an artist — like MaryAnn — so she can paint again. She can play her piano again, at least to some degree,” Charles said.

“Ultimately, our hopes are for a full recovery — to get her moving and get her back home. With Powassan, there’s so little known about it, it’s hard to know what’s going to happen.”


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Las Vegas Aces Rookie Kate Martin Suffers Ankle Injury in Game Against Chicago Sky



Las Vegas Aces rookie Kate Martin had to be helped off the floor and taken to the locker room after suffering an apparent ankle injury in the first quarter of Tuesday night’s game against the Chicago Sky.

Late in the first quarter, Martin was pushing the ball up the court when she appeared to twist her ankle and lost her balance. The rookie was in serious pain, lying on the floor before eventually being helped off. Her entire team came out in support, and although she managed to put some pressure on the leg, she was taken to the locker room for further evaluation.

Martin returned to the team’s bench late in the second quarter but was ruled out for the remainder of the game.

“Kate Martin is awesome. Kate Martin picks up things so quickly, she’s an amazing sponge,” Aces guard Kelsey Plum said of the rookie during the preseason. “I think (coach) Becky (Hammon) nicknamed her Kate ‘Money’ Martin. I think that’s gonna stick. And when I say ‘money,’ it’s not just about scoring and stuff, she’s just in the right place at the right time. She just makes people better. And that’s what Becky values, that’s what our coaching staff values and that’s why she’s gonna be a great asset to our team.”

Las Vegas selected Martin in the second round of the 2024 WNBA Draft. She was coming off the best season of her collegiate career at Iowa, where she averaged 13.1 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game during the 2023-24 campaign. Martin’s integration into the Aces organization has been seamless, with her quickly earning the respect and admiration of her teammates and coaches.

The team and fans alike are hoping for a speedy recovery for Martin, whose contributions have been vital to the Aces’ performance this season.

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Asteroid Apophis will visit Earth in 2029, and this European satellite will be along for the ride



The European Space Agency is fast-tracking a new mission called Ramses, which will fly to near-Earth asteroid 99942 Apophis and join the space rock in 2029 when it comes very close to our planet — closer even than the region where geosynchronous satellites sit.

Ramses is short for Rapid Apophis Mission for Space Safety and, as its name suggests, is the next phase in humanity’s efforts to learn more about near-Earth asteroids (NEOs) and how we might deflect them should one ever be discovered on a collision course with planet Earth.

In order to launch in time to rendezvous with Apophis in February 2029, scientists at the European Space Agency have been given permission to start planning Ramses even before the multinational space agency officially adopts the mission. The sanctioning and appropriation of funding for the Ramses mission will hopefully take place at ESA’s Ministerial Council meeting (involving representatives from each of ESA’s member states) in November of 2025. To arrive at Apophis in February 2029, launch would have to take place in April 2028, the agency says.

This is a big deal because large asteroids don’t come this close to Earth very often. It is thus scientifically precious that, on April 13, 2029, Apophis will pass within 19,794 miles (31,860 kilometers) of Earth. For comparison, geosynchronous orbit is 22,236 miles (35,786 km) above Earth’s surface. Such close fly-bys by asteroids hundreds of meters across (Apophis is about 1,230 feet, or 375 meters, across) only occur on average once every 5,000 to 10,000 years. Miss this one, and we’ve got a long time to wait for the next.

When Apophis was discovered in 2004, it was for a short time the most dangerous asteroid known, being classified as having the potential to impact with Earth possibly in 2029, 2036, or 2068. Should an asteroid of its size strike Earth, it could gouge out a crater several kilometers across and devastate a country with shock waves, flash heating and earth tremors. If it crashed down in the ocean, it could send a towering tsunami to devastate coastlines in multiple countries.

Over time, as our knowledge of Apophis’ orbit became more refined, however, the risk of impact  greatly went down. Radar observations of the asteroid in March of 2021 reduced the uncertainty in Apophis’ orbit from hundreds of kilometers to just a few kilometers, finally removing any lingering worries about an impact — at least for the next 100 years. (Beyond 100 years, asteroid orbits can become too unpredictable to plot with any accuracy, but there’s currently no suggestion that an impact will occur after 100 years.) So, Earth is expected to be perfectly safe in 2029 when Apophis comes through. Still, scientists want to see how Apophis responds by coming so close to Earth and entering our planet’s gravitational field.

“There is still so much we have yet to learn about asteroids but, until now, we have had to travel deep into the solar system to study them and perform experiments ourselves to interact with their surface,” said Patrick Michel, who is the Director of Research at CNRS at Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur in Nice, France, in a statement. “Nature is bringing one to us and conducting the experiment itself. All we need to do is watch as Apophis is stretched and squeezed by strong tidal forces that may trigger landslides and other disturbances and reveal new material from beneath the surface.”

The Goldstone radar’s imagery of asteroid 99942 Apophis as it made its closest approach to Earth, in March 2021. (Image credit: NASA/JPL–Caltech/NSF/AUI/GBO)

By arriving at Apophis before the asteroid’s close encounter with Earth, and sticking with it throughout the flyby and beyond, Ramses will be in prime position to conduct before-and-after surveys to see how Apophis reacts to Earth. By looking for disturbances Earth’s gravitational tidal forces trigger on the asteroid’s surface, Ramses will be able to learn about Apophis’ internal structure, density, porosity and composition, all of which are characteristics that we would need to first understand before considering how best to deflect a similar asteroid were one ever found to be on a collision course with our world.

Besides assisting in protecting Earth, learning about Apophis will give scientists further insights into how similar asteroids formed in the early solar system, and, in the process, how  planets (including Earth) formed out of the same material.

One way we already know Earth will affect Apophis is by changing its orbit. Currently, Apophis is categorized as an Aten-type asteroid, which is what we call the class of near-Earth objects that have a shorter orbit around the sun than Earth does. Apophis currently gets as far as 0.92 astronomical units (137.6 million km, or 85.5 million miles) from the sun. However, our planet will give Apophis a gravitational nudge that will enlarge its orbit to 1.1 astronomical units (164.6 million km, or 102 million miles), such that its orbital period becomes longer than Earth’s.

It will then be classed as an Apollo-type asteroid.

Ramses won’t be alone in tracking Apophis. NASA has repurposed their OSIRIS-REx mission, which returned a sample from another near-Earth asteroid, 101955 Bennu, in 2023. However, the spacecraft, renamed OSIRIS-APEX (Apophis Explorer), won’t arrive at the asteroid until April 23, 2029, ten days after the close encounter with Earth. OSIRIS-APEX will initially perform a flyby of Apophis at a distance of about 2,500 miles (4,000 km) from the object, then return in June that year to settle into orbit around Apophis for an 18-month mission.

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Furthermore, the European Space Agency still plans on launching its Hera spacecraft in October 2024 to follow-up on the DART mission to the double asteroid Didymos and Dimorphos. DART impacted the latter in a test of kinetic impactor capabilities for potentially changing a hazardous asteroid’s orbit around our planet. Hera will survey the binary asteroid system and observe the crater made by DART’s sacrifice to gain a better understanding of Dimorphos’ structure and composition post-impact, so that we can place the results in context.

The more near-Earth asteroids like Dimorphos and Apophis that we study, the greater that context becomes. Perhaps, one day, the understanding that we have gained from these missions will indeed save our planet.



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McMaster Astronomy grad student takes a star turn in Killarney Provincial Park



Astronomy PhD candidate Veronika Dornan served as the astronomer in residence at Killarney Provincial Park. She’ll be back again in October when the nights are longer (and bug free). Dornan has delivered dozens of talks and shows at the W.J. McCallion Planetarium and in the community. (Photos by Veronika Dornan)

Veronika Dornan followed up the April 8 total solar eclipse with another awe-inspiring celestial moment.

This time, the astronomy PhD candidate wasn’t cheering alongside thousands of people at McMaster — she was alone with a telescope in the heart of Killarney Provincial Park just before midnight.

Dornan had the park’s telescope pointed at one of the hundreds of globular star clusters that make up the Milky Way. She was seeing light from thousands of stars that had travelled more than 10,000 years to reach the Earth.

This time there was no cheering: All she could say was a quiet “wow”.

Dornan drove five hours north to spend a week at Killarney Park as the astronomer in residence. part of an outreach program run by the park in collaboration with the Allan I. Carswell Observatory at York University.

Dornan applied because the program combines her two favourite things — astronomy and the great outdoors. While she’s a lifelong camper, hiker and canoeist, it was her first trip to Killarney.

Bruce Waters, who’s taught astronomy to the public since 1981 and co-founded Stars over Killarney, warned Dornan that once she went to the park, she wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.

The park lived up to the hype. Everywhere she looked was like a painting, something “a certain Group of Seven had already thought many times over.”

The dome telescopes at Killarney Provincial Park.

She spent her days hiking the Granite Ridge, Crack and Chikanishing trails and kayaking on George Lake.  At night, she went stargazing with campers — or at least tried to. The weather didn’t cooperate most evenings — instead of looking through the park’s two domed telescopes, Dornan improvised and gave talks in the amphitheatre beneath cloudy skies.

Dornan has delivered dozens of talks over the years in McMaster’s W.J. McCallion Planetarium and out in the community, but “it’s a bit more complicated when you’re talking about the stars while at the same time fighting for your life against swarms of bugs.”

When the campers called it a night and the clouds parted, Dornan spent hours observing the stars. “I seriously messed up my sleep schedule.”

She also gave astrophotography a try during her residency, capturing images of the Ring Nebula and the Great Hercules Cluster.

A star cluster image by Veronika Dornan

“People assume astronomers take their own photos. I needed quite a lot of guidance for how to take the images. It took a while to fiddle with the image properties, but I got my images.”

Dornan’s been invited back for another week-long residency in bug-free October, when longer nights offer more opportunities to explore and photograph the final frontier.

She’s aiming to defend her PhD thesis early next summer, then build a career that continues to combine research and outreach.

“Research leads to new discoveries which gives you exciting things to talk about. And if you’re not connecting with the public then what’s the point of doing research?”



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