Saturday, October 9, 2004

West Nile became man's Twilight Zone



By Cliff Radel
Enquirer staff writer

[IMAGE] Ken Cleeter and his wife Sharon shortly before leaving the hospital.
(Good Samaritan Hospital photo)
UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS - Showing the spunk that helped him lick West Nile virus, Ken Cleeter calls his lengthy hospitalization "my 11-month vacation."

He could just as easily call it an ordeal, a brush with death or a trip to the Twilight Zone where he lost six weeks of his life.

Not Cleeter. He's too optimistic.

The 54-year-old Aurora, Ind., man was extremely upbeat Friday as he walked out of Good Samaritan Hospital under his own power. He had just been released "three days shy of being in the hospital for 11 months."

Seconds earlier, as he emerged from a door marked "exit," he stood up and braced himself on his walker. Taking a huge breath of warm fall air, he shouted:

"YES!"

And the crowd roared.

His family and 12 hospital staffers - nurses, doctors and physical therapists - stood outside and cheered. Then they cried. A box of Kleenex was passed down the line. In the midst of the sendoff, Cleeter talked about his "vacation."

There was one time when he felt he wasn't going to make it, the engineer at Lawrenceburg's Pernod Ricard Seagram Distillery admitted

Nov. 10, 2003, Cleeter walked into Dearborn County Hospital.

"I thought I had the flu." He was vomiting and dehydrated. "I was sweating like I never had before."

The next day - or so he thought - he woke up in a bed at Drake Center.

In reality, that "day'' was six weeks later.

"I came to, five days before Christmas," he said. Before year's end, he was moved to Good Samaritan.

Cleeter woke up at Drake to find that he was paralyzed. He could barely wiggle the fingers on his left hand. He's a leftie. He could scarcely raise his right arm.

Doctors think that Cleeter contracted the virus from a mosquito bite while playing golf or working in his yard.

"I'm the fourth generation to live on the old Trester family homestead," he said. "I love to work around the place, mow the lawn while listening to Marty and Joe on the radio." He was speaking of Reds announcers Brennaman and Nuxhall.

Cleeter remembers last October "as being real warm. I was outside a lot."

He does not recall any bug bites. But he does remember feeling ill as October turned into November.

When he awoke at Drake, Cleeter could not speak.

Tubes ran down his throat and in and out of other parts of his body. His brain was swollen. But, doctors say, he suffered no permanent brain damage.

"I wondered what on earth had happened to me," he said. "And that's when I wondered if I was going to live."

Cleeter battled his way onto the road to recovery, which in two weeks will lead him back to work on a limited schedule. He lost 45 pounds from his 225-pound frame. He survived nine operations, seven for a pesky bed sore on his rump.

"I've been operated so often on my rear end," he said, "I call it my million-dollar butt."

He maintained that he would not be alive today without his "two families" and his faith.

His wife, Sharon, daughter, Kelly, and son, Adam, maintained a near-constant bedside vigil. Kelly postponed her Feb. 14 wedding. She has a new date, Nov. 27. And she can't wait for her dad to walk her down the aisle.

"The good Lord must have a purpose for me here on earth," Cleeter said. "He had way too many opportunities to take me."

As he adjusted the braces he needs to walk on his virus-weakened legs, Cleeter thanked "everyone at Good Sam. They have been so gracious to me, through the good and the bad. They're my second family. I wouldn't be here without them."

Occupational therapist Lisa Ross waited in line to gave Cleeter a hug and kiss. She echoed the sentiments of her colleagues as she told him:

"I got more from you than you got from me."

As Cleeter made his way to a waiting black Pontiac Grand Am, Ross said:

"He was an inspiration for us all. He was deathly ill. But he was continuously optimistic. He never felt sorry for himself. He always asked about us, how we were doing."

Cleeter tried to deflect Ross' compliment by changing the subject: "All I hope that comes from my story is awareness."

He talked about getting rid of standing water, using insect repellent and recognizing the virus' symptoms.

"Everyone needs to be aware of this disease, doctors included. Not every bug is the flu."

E-mail cradel@enquirer.com




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