Sur­vivor of West Nile virus lifts up oth­ers

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Insight - BY CAR­MEN GE­ORGE cge­orge@fres­

Michael Ro­driguez sat in a Fresno re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion hos­pi­tal four years ago strug­gling to make the sim­plest of move­ments. Tears filled his eyes as he fo­cused on try­ing to tap his feet be­side pa­tients who had suf­fered strokes and in­juries from car ac­ci­dents.

His dev­as­tat­ing de­bil­i­ta­tion had come from some­thing much dif­fer­ent – a mos­quito in­fected with West Nile virus.

The rare virus had taken the Clo­vis man from a peak of health and pro­fes­sional suc­cess to a fight for his life in Au­gust of 2014. Ro­driguez only re­calls flashes of a nearly month-long hos­pi­tal­iza­tion at Stan­ford Med­i­cal Cen­ter and Clo­vis Com­mu­nity Med­i­cal Cen­ter.

Less than 1 per­cent of peo­ple bit­ten by a mos­quito car­ry­ing West Nile de­velop se­vere symp­toms. Ro­driguez was among them. The virus had got­ten into his spine and brain, leav­ing him nearly par­a­lyzed and cog­ni­tively im­paired.

“Ev­ery­one was pretty ner­vous,” Ro­driguez said. “They were all say­ing good­bye.”

Ro­driguez’s symp­toms seemed mild at first – spots last­ing a cou­ple days that looked like a rash, and flu-like symp­toms – then his body took a turn for the worst. The day af­ter par­tic­i­pat­ing in a work train­ing, Ro­driguez was hos­pi­tal­ized af­ter find­ing him­self un­able to go to the bath­room. It took about a week for doc­tors to de­ter­mine he was in­fected with West Nile.

Ro­driguez would sur­vive, then spend more than six months do­ing in­ten­sive re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion and phys­i­cal ther­apy. He started in a wheel­chair, then a walker, then a cane, as he re­gained his strength and learned to walk again.

Ro­driguez even­tu­ally started try­ing to work out at home.

“I couldn’t do one pushup on my knees … One!” he said. “It was sooo heart­break­ing for me. But ev­ery day, ev­ery day, I would try.”

Dar­ry­lynn Silva re­calls many of those at­tempts, watch­ing her friend “just

try­ing to lift his leg, just try­ing to lift a foot.”

It was es­pe­cially hard for Ro­driguez, a for­mer body­builder, since ex­er­cise had al­ways been in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant in his life.

What hap­pened to his mind was also heart­break­ing. The West Nile caused en­cephali­tis, trans­verse myeli­tis and menin­gi­tis (in­flam­ma­tion of the brain, spinal cord and the mem­branes sur­round­ing the brain and spinal cord re­spec­tively).

Ro­driguez pre­vi­ously worked as a med­i­cal de­vice equip­ment con­sul­tant, as­sist­ing sur­geons in op­er­at­ing rooms through­out the cen­tral San Joaquin Val­ley. If the equip­ment they used dur­ing surg­eries wasn’t work­ing prop­erly, it was his job to fix it quickly. Re­turn­ing to work af­ter re­cov­er­ing from his hos­pi­tal­iza­tion, Ro­driguez learned he wasn’t quick enough for the op­er­at­ing room any­more.

“That’s hard when some­one says, ‘You’re not go­ing to be able to do this any­more,’ and you spent the last 20 years do­ing that and try­ing to be the best you could at it. … I can’t even tell you what that feels like,” Ro­driguez said. “And then what?”

The an­swer came while train­ing a young ath­lete named Kennedy. Ro­driguez agreed to train the girl at the urg­ing of her mother, his friend Silva.

Silva told him his work­outs were sim­i­lar to those at a Fit Body Boot Camp in Fresno. She en­cour­aged him to open his own fran­chise. Ro­driguez did this sum­mer, one of sev­eral in the city. The 55-year-old de­scribes his boot camp, lo­cated at Mil­burn and Hern­don av­enues in north­west Fresno, as “one-on-one fit­ness in a group set­ting.”

It’s a re­mark­able achieve­ment con­sid­er­ing all he has en­dured phys­i­cally and men­tally over the past four years.

Of con­tract­ing West Nile, he said: “Look­ing back now, it was the worst thing that could hap­pen in my ca­reer but now it’s one of the best things be­cause I am truly able to help peo­ple and in­spire them.”

Ro­driguez said help­ing his clients, now more than 100 of them, be­come health­ier “is the most re­ward­ing thing, and I mean that so much.”

Doc­tors told him the only rea­son he sur­vived West Nile is be­cause he was so phys­i­cally fit.

West Nile in­fected at least 26 peo­ple in the cen­tral San Joaquin Val­ley this year: eight in Kern, seven in Tu­lare, six in Fresno, three in Madera, and two in Merced coun­ties. Eight peo­ple died from the virus in Cal­i­for­nia in 2018, based on data re­leased Nov. 1. Half of the deaths were in the Sacra­mento area. The oth­ers were di­vided be­tween North­ern and South­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

The virus is picked up by mosquitoes that feed on in­fected birds. Peo­ple can­not pass on the virus through cough­ing, touch­ing or kiss­ing.

Ro­driguez also helped an­other West Nile sur­vivor, Tim Thiesen. The Clo­vis North High School teacher and for­mer base­ball coach said Ro­driguez’s pos­i­tive at­ti­tude was an in­spi­ra­tion as he went through his own re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion fol­low­ing his di­ag­no­sis.

One of the long-term ef­fects for Ro­driguez is post-trau­matic stress disor­der. Small, un­ex­pected things can star­tle him: a tap on the shoul­der, the sound of grind­ing pep­per, or some­one sud­denly ap­pear­ing around a corner.

“It’s crazy,” Ro­driguez said of PTSD. “I wish I could ex­plain it, how it makes you feel, and it’s not all the time.”

Through all of it, he’s de­voted to con­tin­u­ing his jour­ney to get stronger. He helps his clients do the same. Silva, also op­er­a­tions and nu­tri­tion man­ager for his boot camp, calls him a “nat­u­ral-born en­cour­ager.”

“No one leaves Michael feel­ing down, ever,” she said.

JOHN WALKER jwalker@fres­

Michael Ro­driguez, who nearly died from West Nile virus in 2014, has turned his ex­pe­ri­ence into help­ing oth­ers at his Fit Body Boot Camp in Fresno: “It was the worst thing that could hap­pen in my ca­reer but now it’s one of the best things be­cause I am truly able to help peo­ple and in­spire them.”

Michael Ro­driguez is seen in a body­build­ing com­pe­ti­tion in this 1996 photo.

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