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Pastor recounts bout with West Nile virus

SLIDELL, La. (BP)–A Southern Baptist pastor is among the 85 people who have been infected with the West Nile virus in Louisiana as of mid-August.

Mike Rasberry of Immanuel Baptist Church in Slidell, La., said his bout with the virus, which was diagnosed July 31, underscored to him a lesson he plans to underscore to others — that “we need to take advantage of every moment we’re given because we’re not assured that we’re going to have any additional time.

“It’s a precious commodity and we need to use it for God’s glory,” Rasberry said.

In an interview with Baptist Press, the pastor recounted he was working at the church on a Saturday morning preparing for homecoming “and thought I had gotten too hot out pulling weeds with other folks. I began to feel pretty bad. I went home and was very tired. I felt like I had some kind of flu. My body was hurting, and my skin felt as if it were sunburned all over. I had a little bit of a headache. I took Aleve and drank water.”

He participated in the homecoming service the next morning and then went home and tried to relax the rest of the day. When he got up Monday morning, he opted not to go to the emergency room because he and his wife planned to attend a family gathering in Mississippi for two days.

“I kept taking Aleve and drinking water, and I was pretty tired. I worked on the tractor for a few hours, out bush-hogging [in Mississippi], and it totally destroyed me,” Rasberry said. “I slept nearly all day Tuesday. My eyes hurt and felt like they were the size of baseballs. I had started having sensitivity to light on Saturday, and it got worse by Tuesday. I was extremely weak.”

He and his wife traveled home on Tuesday afternoon, but he wasn’t able to see a doctor until Thursday morning. By that time he had begun to feel better. The symptoms lessened and his eyes felt better. Medical personnel ran blood tests and then called back that night to tell him that his white blood cell count of 1.7 had resulted in a “panic note” and he needed to be hospitalized immediately.

“I was feeling a lot better and didn’t’ feel like I should be hospitalized,” he said.

Rasberry called several people and prayed before going to the emergency room. Tests there showed his white blood cell count had risen to 2.28, though his red blood count, hemoglobin and platelets were still low. Doctors told him he had survived the most serious portion of the virus.

“The doctor told me that 65 percent of people who contract West Nile never feel any symptoms. I was one of the 35 percent who did,” he said.

After tests showed he was improving, Rasberry was released from the hospital the same day he was admitted.

“I’m still weak. I’m recovering. My system used all of my resources fighting the virus,” he said. “All I know is that I am not as strong as I have been but I’m getting stronger every day. I’m nearly back to normal. I’m doing my normal schedule, but I do tire easily.”

As of mid-August, 59 of the 85 people diagnosed with the mosquito-borne virus had evidenced the most serious West Nile symptoms: encephalitis or meningitis or both, according to CNN.com. Seven people have died of the virus in Louisiana this year. Rasberry is one of the fortunate ones who did not suffer further symptoms.

Rasberry only became pastor of Immanuel Baptist on the North Shore of New Orleans on July 28 after serving as interim pastor for about three months. He had been working in the same area for five years, helping troubled churches. Before that, he served as a tentmaker missionary in Korea and also as a missionary throughout the United States and Mexico with the Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board). For five semesters in 1998-99 he was an adjunct professor of English as a Second Language at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

He said he doesn’t have a clue how he contracted the virus. Mosquitoes are everywhere in southern Louisiana, he said. The incubation period is anywhere from three to 15 days, he was told.

After the ordeal, he said his outlook on life has changed.

“When I was sitting there after hearing I had this thing, I realized the gravity of the situation,” he said. “I realized that there are things I feel like I need to do and [to] focus on first things first. Sometimes we get our priorities out of kilter when everything is going all right. I need to focus on God’s plan and what he wants to do and not just what I want to do.” He noted that he would like to see family members and people in the community come to know the Lord, and he would like his church to grow deeper in the Lord.

West Nile virus is not the first ordeal to affect Rasberry’s body. In July 2001 he was thrown from a horse and broke both wrists. Last October he was putting on a patriotic fireworks display at a school in honor of Sept. 11 and was injured when three of the firecrackers hit his face. He almost lost his eyesight then. Also, in the Marine Corps he faced all sorts of challenges. But the bout with West Nile was different, he said.

“This was internal. I was totally dependent on God. I was never this fearful of what was going on in my life,” Rasberry said.

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  • Erin Curry