With the threat of the mosquito-borne virus EEE on the rise in communities across New England — two more human cases were announced in Massachusetts Friday — one family is sharing their story about just how real the danger is.
Kelly Labell was just 20 years old and still living with her parents in Newton, New Hampshire, when the unthinkable happened.
"It's tough," said Raymond police Det. Richard Labell. "Real tough."
U.S. & World
He hasn't hugged his daughter in almost 14 years.
"I break down a lot," he said.
Kelly Labelle was a healthy, energetic 20-year-old working at a local car dealership when she came down with a headache and a fever.
"I came home and her car was in the driveway, she didn't go to work that day," Labell recalled.
When her symptoms worsened without any good explanation, local doctors sent her to Boston.
She was put on life support and died within a week.
"It impacts the family in a way that just... it changes things," said Kelly's brother, Raymond police Chief Mike Labell.
An autopsy showed Kelly died from EEE, short for eastern equine encephalitis.
"I was shocked, shocked," Det. Labell said.
So too was entomologist Sarah McGregor.
"I remember the exact moment that the state called me to say that Kelly had died, it felt like a punch in the gut," MacGregor said.
At the time in 2005, experts like MacGregor hadn't seen a human case of EEE in the state in 25 years.
"I was devastated," she said. "I still get emotional thinking about it."
On Friday, MacGregor, who is the president of Dragon Mosquito Control in Brentwood, was examining a batch of mosquitoes from Kelly's hometown of Newton.
"This is scary, what I'm seeing," she said.
In one petri dish, MacGregor identified more than 100 mosquitoes as likely carriers of EEE.
"It has the potential to kill 30 percent of its victims," she said. "Those who survive have lifelong effects."
As the risk level increases across southeastern New Hampshire, the Labells are reliving their worst nightmare.
They held back tears as they told Kelly's story in hopes of saving someone else.
"If it will help another family understand it's real, it's worth it," Det. Labell said.
Kelly is not the only EEE victim from the Granite State. Four other people have died of the disease there since 2005.
So far this year, there've been no human cases of EEE identified in New Hampshire, but EEE was found in a New Hampshire horse for the first time this year in late August. MacGregor says the risk isn't over until the first snowfall.