Survivor of West Nile virus lifts up others
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.
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.