Jim, 52, went to Tsehootsooi Medical Center in Fort Defiance, Arizona, on August 28 when he noticed an infection on his lower left leg. Two days later, he was transferred to the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque, where he was treated for a brown recluse spider bite.
“I have no idea where it happened or how,” Jim said during a phone interview from his Arizona home. “What I found out is that when you get bitten by a black widow, you feel a sting. If you get bitten by a brown recluse spider, you don’t feel it.”
The spider likely bit Jim between two toes and the venom spread rapidly, moving up his leg and toward his vital organs. After he was admitted to the hospital, doctors immediately did surgery to remove the infection, along with dead tissue, ligaments and muscle. He was in the hospital for about four weeks and endured several additional surgeries.
“I don’t know how many times I was in surgery,” he said. “Two or three or four times. It was very serious. They were saying that if the infection went past the knee, it would go to my lungs and heart and I could die.”
Jim was asked for his consent to amputate the leg, should it become necessary. Fortunately, doctors were able to save his leg, and his life. But surgeons removed much of the soft tissue, which left Jim weak and unable to walk on his own.
“I was joking around when I saw my leg,” he said. “They took out everything but the bone, and I said it looked like the Grand Canyon or Canyon de Chelly.”
Brown recluse spider bites are relatively uncommon, according to entomologists, and treatment usually requires antibiotics. Yet Jim’s case was complicated because he also has diabetes – which was undiagnosed until after he was hospitalized for the spider bite.
“Even though I’ve been eating healthy and staying active, I ended up with diabetes,” he said. “Normally when you get bitten, they fight off the infection with antibiotics, but because of the diabetes, my body didn’t have what it needed to fight it off.”
The diabetes affected Jim’s immune system and made it difficult to combat the venom. Now that he’s recovering, Jim is using his experience to raise awareness of diabetes, which disproportionately affects American Indians.
“The diabetes really complicated things,” he said. “Our bodies have the ability to fight back. If we treat it right, it will protect us. If it has diabetes, the body is not at its peak to heal itself.”
Jim is calling on all Natives to see health care providers regularly and to be knowledgeable about their own health. He also is pushing for healthier eating habits and lifestyles across Indian country.
“Really take care of yourselves,” he said. “Knowledge about your own health is so important. Don’t skip your yearly checkups. Follow your doctor’s orders and work with them, really talk to them.”
Jim was released from the hospital on September 24. He is working with physical therapists to regain his strength and is expected to be walking again in two to three weeks and running within about four months.
“I’m looking forward to that,” he said.