DANVILLE, Va. — On July 2, two friends took an otherwise innocuous stroll in Danville — it turned deadly.
Karen Hudgins and Evelyn Wooten were strolling along the Riverwalk Trail that morning when an insect bit Wooten.
“We were walking and she said, ‘Karen, get that bug off of me,’” Hudgins recalled.
Hudgins slapped what she thought was a horsefly off her friend’s shoulder area.
About 10 minutes later, they were heading toward the Crossing at the Dan when Wooten began having problems.
“She said, ‘Karen, I can’t breathe,’” Hudgins said. “I looked back. She looked real pale. She was struggling real hard to breathe.”
“I need to sit down,” Evelyn Wooten, 77, told her before collapsing.
“She just fell back,” Hudgins said. “The last thing she said was, ‘911.’ She started swelling up and turning blue, her lips, arms, everything.”
All of a sudden, Hudgins remembers, her neighbor of more than 20 years stopped breathing. They lived at Arnett Apartments near Sherwood Shopping Center and had taken walks together on the Riverwalk Trail since 2003.
Evelyn Wooten was put in intensive care and on life support. She was declared brain dead the next day, July 3.
The hospital confirmed that a bug bit Wooten and she had an allergic reaction, her son, Mark Wooten, said.
“It was very unexpected,” he said.
Evelyn Wooten was described as a very warm, caring person who loved her family dearly and lived to serve others.
“She would give the shirt off her back for you,” said Mark Wooten, 58, who lives in Bridgewater. “She never made an enemy.”
Hudgins, after scouring pictures on the internet, said she believes she knows what killed Wooten — triatoma sanguisuga, also known as the kissing bug.
“No doubt in my mind that’s what it was,” said Hudgins, 75.
The insects are found in the southern United States, Mexico, Central America and South America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Eleven different species have been found in the southern U.S., according to the CDC.
The bug’s saliva can cause an allergic reaction that can include severe redness, itching, swelling, welts, hives, or, in rare cases, anaphylactic shock, according to the CDC website.
Hudgins recalled her friend’s high spirits the morning before their fateful walk at the Riverwalk Trial.
“That morning when she got in the car, she said she felt so good,” Hudgins said, adding they talked to each other four or five times a day.
Evelyn Wooten had worked at Dan River Inc. textile and fabric finishing company until she retired and also worked at Food Lion at Ballou Park and in Tightsqueeze in Pittsylvania County.
She and her husband moved to the Dan River Region from Heller, Kentucky, in 1960 right after they married.
Her hobbies included reading and her walks with Hudgins. They also played cards together.
“She would call Karen ‘the hostess with the mostest,’” Mark Wooten recalled.
She, along with Hudgins, was a breast cancer survivor.
“They formed a real strong bond together with that,” Mark Wooten said.
As for the kissing bug, it can spread Chagas disease by releasing the pathogen in its feces near the site of the bite. Humans can be infected by scratching the bite and and rubbing the pathogen into the wound, mouth, nose or eyes, according to the Virginia Department of Health website.
Symptoms of Chagas disease include fever; swelling around the bite; and in acute cases, severe inflammation of the heart muscle or the brain and lining around the brain.
Complications from chronic Chagas disease include heart rhythm abnormalities that can cause sudden death; a dilated heart that doesn’t pump blood well; and a dilated esophagus or colon, leading to difficulties with eating or bowel movements, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
Symptoms can show up within a few days after infection and can last a few weeks or months.
Kissing bugs can live indoors, in cracks and holes in substandard housing, or in a variety of outdoor settings, according to the CDC.
Common places for them include underneath porches; between rocky structures; under cement; in rock, wood, brush piles, or beneath bark; in rodent nests or animal burrows; in outdoor dog houses or kennels, and in chicken coops or houses.