Alton Stockton is down to two therapy sessions a week at Texas Health Fort Worth after months of having to go Monday through Friday. He still has to exercise every day to try to improve strength in his right leg, which just months ago was paralyzed.
It started last Labor Day, with a mosquito bite.
The Bedford resident, who was 64 at the time, was infected with neuroinvasive West Nile virus, a rare form of the disease which happens in roughly one in every 250 cases, said Stockton’s physical therapist, Daleen Knight.
His symptoms snowballed rapidly.
One morning, he woke up with a bad headache that wouldn’t go away.
Within weeks, he fell while watching his Maltese-poodle mix Sophie in his back yard, and couldn’t stand up. His right leg wouldn’t work.
“I thought it had just gone to sleep, but I went outside to take her out and fell, and couldn’t get up,” Stockton said. “At that point, I had no feeling in my leg. Two days later, my shoulder was paralyzed.”
Soon his speech became impaired.
Stockton refers to the time since that he spent in speech, occupational and physical therapy caused by encephalitis as a faith journey.
“We’ve had to lean on our faith to get through this,” Stockton said, referring to himself and his wife, Clare.
“As for education, we knew nothing of this,” he said. “I never thought a mosquito bite could do this — I never used to worry about mosquitoes.”
Because his symptoms were similar to those of a stroke victim, Stockton spent time rehabilitating with stroke victims in Anna, 55 miles from Bedford, working to regain his speech and motor skills.
Several people who had suffered and struggled with West Nile reached out, offering prayers and support. A group from his church came to his house and remodeled his bathrooms so he could use them more easily, he said.
“Through that, you forgot about yourself,” Stockton said, becoming emotional. “You got to know other people, and I became more compassionate about other people and what they were going through.”
One man who arrived depressed after suffering a stroke and saying things like “I just want to die” began talking to Stockton. “About two days later, he said, ‘Alton, we’re gonna kill it today.’ His whole attitude had changed.”
When he finally was deemed ready to spend most of his time at home, after about two months of near-constant care, Stockton went to Chick-Fil-A first thing, then a few days later visited his primary care physician.
“He said, ‘I’m glad to see you here,’” Stockton said. “I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said, ‘Most people your age don’t live through this.’ He said if it hadn’t been for the shape I was in, I probably would have died.”
Stockton used to go to the gym Monday through Friday before he got sick, he said. He’d do 40 minutes of cardio and then move on to either upper- or lower-body strengthening exercises on alternating days.
“I’d done that continually for years,” he said.
Now, Stockton says he feels more compelled to keep in shape. Along with his regular sessions at Texas Health, he maintains a daily workout that may be a bit more intense than Knight would prefer. He used to do “about 45 minutes of basic exercises before rehab, then head back to the gym for a workout and exercises in the pool,” he said. “Everybody agreed that was a bit too much.”
Now he still does his prescribed floor exercises to strengthen his leg when he wakes up in the morning, but has scaled back at the gym, sticking mainly to walking in the pool and working out his leg in the hot tub.
Despite the grueling work, setbacks and frustrations, Stockton said he’d rarely allow himself to feel bad about his circumstances.
“If I miss a day (of therapy and exercise), my thought process is, that could be the day my leg comes back,” Stockton said.
“In a weird sense, I’ve been blessed through all this,” he said. “I think if you allow yourself to get into the negative, it’s very easy to. And there have been times, maybe two or three times, that I’ve given myself a day or two to have a pity-pot party. But then it’s time to get to work again.”
And he’s found some time-saving workarounds. He loves cooking but after being infected found it hard to move around the kitchen carrying ingredients, so he tucked cans of spice into the waistband of his pants to save himself a few trips. His wife took a picture of that.
Stockton hopes his story educates people about the importance of doing all you can to prevent mosquito bites.
“No one understands how bad it can get,” Stockton said of West Nile. “You have a spectrum ranging from flu-like symptoms to death, but in between those, the doctors don’t really know how it’s going to affect you.”
He and his wife make sure the house is stocked with DEET and that they follow other mosquito recommendations. The anniversary of his illness comes just as Tarrant County has decided to spray three areas this week after they tested positive for West Nile.
Stockton can drive now, albeit left-footed. He will probably continue therapy for several more weeks.
He’s waiting on a high-tech leg brace called a C-brace which should allow him much greater mobility. He’s looking forward to that, and to hopefully helping more people with the story of what he’s been through.
“I tell people, I’ve got my health and my body, I just have a bad leg,” Stockton said. “So how to you take that and turn that into a positive, to reach out and help others? My passion for helping others has just increased through this.”
Preventing West Nile
The Centers for Disease Control recommends the following precautions to avoid contracting the West Nile virus:
▪ Use an insect repellent effective at deterring mosquitos, such as DEET, oil of lemon eucalyptus or Picaridin
▪ Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants
▪ Treat clothing and gear with permethrin, an insect repellent
▪ Repair holes in window and door screens to prevent mosquitos from getting inside
▪ Eliminate standing water around your home