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Gainesville man describes ‘devastating’ ordeal with West Nile virus
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Jessie Carmon, left, David's wife, holds David's hands as his chair is lowered back enabling him to shift his weight to avoid sores at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta on Jan. 15.

David Carmon never knew what bit him.

Many days would pass before the Gainesville man and his wife, Jessie, would know the culprit — a mosquito infected by West Nile virus.

And by that time, David was fighting for his life. The virus that entered his system over the Labor Day weekend in 2018 would go on to wreck the 53-year-old’s body, leaving him paralyzed and fighting to breathe — just struggling to survive.

“It’s a very devastating disease,” he said in an interview last week, confined to a wheelchair and only able to speak because of a valve connected to a tracheostomy tube at the base of his throat.

Progress is being made, but slowly.

“There’s a little bit of everything that’s still not working,” Jessie said. “His left leg doesn’t work as well as his right leg. His left hand doesn’t work as well as his right hand. He has a hard time holding his head up because the left side of his neck is too weak.”

Carmon’s journey began with a simple household chore: trimming the bushes in his backyard near First Baptist Church off Green Street.

“The next day, I had a rash over my entire upper torso,” he said. “It was like a heat rash. It was on my chest and back.”

He went to see a doctor, who prescribed a steroid to treat what appeared to be a simple rash.

A couple days later, Jessie found her husband falling to his knees in the bathroom, as he was coming out of the shower.

“I thought it was a blood pressure attack, because that’s happened before,” Jessie said.

They went to the emergency room at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville.

Doctors got his blood pressure under control and sent the Carmons home with medication.

At home later, David started feeling nauseous.

“(He) went white and started sweating like crazy,” said Jessie, who had called a friend over for help. “... His legs were starting to give out, so we were having to carry him down the stairs.

“We got to the hospital and we haven’t been home since,” she said.

At first, doctors thought he had viral meningitis because his neck hurt so badly, she said.

A spinal tap was done to test for many things, including West Nile.

As it turns out, Northeast Georgia Health System had two other patients treated for the disease — one treated in July and the other in August. They eventually went home and recovered, the hospital said in October.

“Many people can have this illness and be symptom-free or have very minimal symptoms,” said Sandy Bozarth, the health system’s manager of infection prevention and control.

Others, like David, aren’t so lucky.

“The emotional rollercoaster while we were (at NGMC) was utter hell,” Jessie said.

Before David got the diagnosis, he had been treated with antibiotics and other drugs.

“But once the diagnosis came, the treatments stopped,” Jessie said. “There is no treatment for West Nile. It’s just managing the symptoms. But it’s like a doctor told me: It doesn’t matter what he has. It only matters that he gets better.”

The diagnosis also helped the Carmons “make the connection to our backyard,” Jessie said. “But it was a relief, because at least we knew what it was (making him sick).’

Since Oct. 2, David has been at Atlanta’s Shepherd Center, which treats people with spinal cord and brain injuries, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and neuromuscular disorders.

“Shepherd has been a godsend,” he said.

During his stay, “he’s had to relearn how to swallow, how to eat,” Jessie said.

Throughout his ordeal, David’s nerve pain has been tremendous, he said.

“If I could, I would have chopped off my left calf, it was so painful,” David said.

One of the main goals at Shepherd has been to wean him off the ventilator.

That had been done initially for brief periods of time — a procedure David described as “scary,” as he had depended so much on the breathing machine.

“You’re trying to breathe and you’re not sure you’re going to be able to,” he said.

Earlier in January, David was allowed to breathe and talk on his own for seven days. A Jan. 17 discharge date was in sight, but then he started getting weak and then he went into cardiac arrest.

Doctors revived him and placed him on back on the ventilator.

David doesn’t have a discharge date now, and exploratory surgery is planned “to find out what went wrong,” Jessie said.

Over the months, David has drawn huge support from family and friends. Evidence of that can be found on his hospital room’s walls, covered by cards wishing him well.

Jessie also has put up family photographs as a reminder of happier, healthier times.

“When (David) starts getting discouraged, I say look how many people love you,” she said.

“Yeah, we’re really blessed,” he said.

Tough times still lay ahead, even beyond the hospital walls.

Jessie is having to prepare for David’s homecoming with a house rearranged to fit his wheelchair and continuing recovery, including a handicapped-accessible ramp. He’ll still need 24/7 care and a specially equipped van in which to travel.

The expenses are daunting, prompting the family to start a GoFundMe account.

Help is already pouring in through dollars and donated work.

“The kindness and generosity is overwhelming,” Jessie said. “It’s the most humbling thing I’ve ever been through in all my life.”

David said that even with all he has been through, he believes his condition isn’t permanent.

Jessie agreed.

“There is a great opportunity for him to fully recover,” she said. “That is the hope.

The illness also has given the couple pause to reflect on life in general and their lives together. The Carmons first met as students at Gainesville High School. They went on to lead separate lives, but ended up marrying 15 years ago.

“His attitude, his willingness to do, his motivation, his everything has been so far beyond what I could have ever thought he would have done,” Jessie said as she looked at David. “He’s my superman.”

The reference was a nod to Christopher Reeve, the famous actor who portrayed Superman in movies and battled a spinal cord injury before dying in 2004.

But her thoughts went much deeper.

David has been through so much, Jessie added, that “God must have something really huge for him to do.”

“I’m really just thankful for my family, my friends and God,” David said. “I came so close to dying, you start thinking about the little things. I know I’ll recover, but I’ll always how it feels to be helpless.”

The main thing he hopes to show people with his illness is the devastation West Nile can cause.

“I don’t want this to happen to anyone else,” he said.

Jessie’s message was blunt: “Wear bug spray. Really. This is not just a mosquito bite.”