Michael Rodriguez sat in a Fresno, Calif., 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, Calif., 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 monthlong 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 of 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 with 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 so 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, an inflammation of the brain; meningitis, an inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord; and transverse myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord.
Rodriguez previously worked as a medical device equipment consultant, assisting surgeons in operating rooms throughout the central San Joaquin Valley. But he wasn’t quick enough for the operating room anymore.
Unsure of what he could do, his friend Silva asked him to train her daughter, a young athlete named Kennedy. Rodriguez was nervous at first about being a physical trainer again but as Kennedy excelled and grew stronger, his fears subsided.
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 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.”