Bemidji teen battles rare virus, defies odds with recovery

Comfortably at home in Bemidji, Kellen Knutson feels lucky now, after a very unlucky situation last year.

"I honestly just feel great about how lucky I was at the outcome," says Kellen.

Suddenly, in the middle of a blizzard on April 5, 2023, Kellen was rushed to Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis. Over the course of just a few days, the otherwise strong seventh grader lost his ability to walk and talk. Kellen was sedated for weeks while his parents were preparing for the strong possibility that their 13-year-old son might be paralyzed for the rest of his life.

"It was also very scary watching your child really struggle with things like breathing," says Heather Knutson, Kellen’s mom. "When nurses and doctors would all rush into the room to help, you could tell in their eyes and their actions that it was a scary moment for them as well."

Through weeks of testing, doctors determined Kellen had acute flaccid myelitis, a rare neurological condition that affects the spinal cord and nervous system. His parents were told a couple of unknown bug bites were likely to blame because Kellen tested positive for two infectious diseases. One was Jamestown Canyon Virus, which comes from mosquitoes, and the other was Powassan virus, which is tickborne. Both are known to be present around the time of early melt, which in Minnesota often happens in March, just before Kellen started feeling weak.

"Cases like Kellen’s are not the norm," says Dr. Matt Severson from Gillette Children’s Hospital. "His case is quite rare."

Then one day, Kellen moved a toe, and more and more physical and occupational rehab at Gillette Children’s Hospital followed. Dr. Severson has helped Kellen with his progress for months. He wants to remind parents that this rare situation isn’t to scare people from enjoying the many benefits of getting outdoors but to drive home the importance of tick checks and paying attention to any health changes, especially if you are aware of bug bites.

"Things like rashes, if they develop fevers, they feel really fatigued and tired. If they're complaining of any muscle or joint pain or headaches, then that would be a good time. If any of those symptoms come up, either talk to your local pediatrician or, if their gut sense says this is more urgent than that – we're really seeing changes happen quickly – take your child to the local emergency department," says Dr. Severson.

For outdoor experts like park ranger Jess Althoff, two layers of tick protection are required by the DNR. Whether it’s gators or tucking pants into socks to protect ankles, plus DEET bug spray or permethrin spray on clothing, Althoff doesn’t take any chances.

"Before I even leave my house to come to work for the day, or if I’m going to be out recreating, it's really important that I think about those things before I leave home. So I’m thinking about what clothes I’m wearing, what sort of forms of tick protection I’m going to wear, and what I can protect my body with," says Althoff. "For me, once a year, I send my clothes into a company that can treat all of my clothing so that I don't have to worry about spraying that on regularly."

In Kellen’s case, he was never aware of any sort of bug bite, so there’s nothing different the self-proclaimed "indoor kid" on the robotics and swim team could have done. His hard work over the past year is paying off, as he is recently back in the pool with his eighth-grade swim team.

"That felt more natural than on land. That felt good," says Kellen.

"I didn't care that he won or anything. It was just like the fact that he's there, he's competing against all of these able-bodied humans, as not completely himself, was pretty, pretty awesome," says Phil Knutson, Kellen’s dad.

And the race to return to his normal life gives everything a new perspective.

"I feel like with what I had, you know, you wouldn't really know how it turned out, but I feel like I got the luckiest end possible," says Kellen.