Helena, Montana

Special Report: Montana Hantavirus survivor shares her story

CLANCY – Debbie Zipperian went about her day like any other day on a sunny morning in the spring of 2011 on her ranch near Clancy.

She grabbed her cat’s food dishes out of the old chicken coop, and that five-minute chore changed her life, “I was in and out of there within five minutes.”

Debbie and now her now-deceased husband used to hike, ride horses, and take care of animals, but all of that changed.

“I had to be on my hands and knees, and there is poop all along the edges everywhere, so my face was this close to it,” said Zipperian.

The symptoms started about a week later. Debbie said she felt tired all the time, very ill, with severe neck aches, and backaches.

Debbie said her memory is foggy, but she remembers being driven to the hospital. Doctors thought it was influenza or pneumonia.

It took three trips before doctors realized Debbie contracted the Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS). She was confused, scared, and hallucinating, and was hospitalized.

“I flat-lined twice, and they couldn’t get me ventilated, because I was just too erratic, and they couldn’t get me sedated,” said Zipperian.

Debbie said her husband told her doctors had to strap her down, that she was hysterical like a rabid bobcat.

Hantavirus is a potentially fatal disease, carried in the urine and droppings of some rodents and is found in deer mice in Montana.

“That’s really the only mouse that transmits hantavirus in Montana,” said Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services epidemiologist Rachel Hinnekamp.

She added that between 1993 and 2016, there have been a total of 43 recorded cases of HPS in Montana, and 10 of those cases have been fatal.

There have been 697 confirmed cases of HPS nationwide — a relatively small number — since 1993. However, more than one-third of those cases have been fatal.

“I feel I’m the lucky one, because I lived,” said Zipperian.

Debbie woke up a week later in the hospital. She said her son Wyatt kept her strong in her fight against the virus.

“I thought of my son. He needed, me and his dad was so ill that’s all I thought. Wyatt Wyatt Wyatt, my support is my son, and my family, and I think you got to have that,” said Debbie.

But HPS had a long and lasting impact on Debbie’s life. She suffered lasting spinal and neurological damage.

“You have to learn everything all over again,” said Zipperian.

She says she had to re-learn how to walk, and still has trouble getting her thoughts together. But she is staying strong.

Debbie said she is part of Hantavirus outreach groups across the US, to talk to others who are going through the disease or survived it.

“Stay strong, keep your head up, try to stay positive”, said Zipperian.

People contract the virus when they disturb and inhale dust containing the urine or feces of infected rodents.


Since 1993 there have been 43 cases of Hantavirus in Montana; 10 of those cases have been fatal. According to the Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services, Hantavirus has shown up in about 40 percent of Montana counties.

The Federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention has more information, including this overview of common symptoms:

Early symptoms include fatigue, fever and muscle aches, especially in the large muscle groups—thighs, hips, back, and sometimes shoulders. About half of all HPS patients also experience headaches, dizziness, chills, and abdominal problems, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain.

Late Symptoms:
• Lungs Fill with Fluid
• Shortness of Breath

Four to 10 days after the initial phase of illness, the late symptoms of HPS appear. These include coughing and shortness of breath, with the sensation of, as one survivor put it, a “…tight band around my chest and a pillow over my face” as the lungs fill with fluid.

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