It took 65 days in three different hospitals before Gary Shepherd was able to return to the two things he loves most: his family and his farm.
Gary’s from Onaway, a small town in northern Michigan where he owns Bonz Beach Farms. He grows fresh produce, makes maple syrup and honey, and cares for egg-laying chickens. During an off-season trip to Arizona In November 2019 with his father, everything changed.
“I was running along, 10 feet tall and bulletproof,” the typically healthy 63-year-old said. “Then all of a sudden, I was in a basket, in a deep spot.”
After he returned home, Gary began feeling flu-like symptoms, lost his appetite and only wanted to nap. Instead of getting better, Gary’s symptoms grew progressively worse. He was admitted to McLaren Northern Michigan Hospital in Petoskey, where he spent five days before test results confirmed he had the West Nile virus.
“When I first saw my dad, it was a pretty scary thing,” said Amber Anders, Gary’s daughter. “His eyes were going back and forth, and he had severe tremors … the scariest thing was, will he ever recover from this?”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most people who contract the virus through a mosquito bite don’t get ill. However, about one in 150 infected people – like Gary – develop life-threatening complications that affect the central nervous system.
Things got even worse for Gary when he needed surgery to remove his gall bladder, was intubated and put on a ventilator to breathe. His family made the decision to move him to Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids for more specialized care before being transferred to Mary Free Bed to begin rehabilitation.
“Here’s where the healing really started,” Gary said.
After three weeks of intensive therapy, Gary graduated Jan. 8 from Mary Free Bed and moved to Saginaw to live with family, where he took part in outpatient therapy for four weeks with Mary Free Bed at Covenant HealthCare. He returned home to Onaway in February.
“People look at me and say, ‘Here comes the miracle man,’” he said. “I want to be known for what made me strong.”
Watch the video below to hear Gary’s story of recovery, including how his team of therapists challenged and encouraged him to reach his goals.
Learn about West Nile virus activity in Michigan and how to protect yourself by visiting the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services website.