He sometimes hurts so badly, this 6-foot-2, 255-pound former All-American linebacker at Mississippi State, that he cries.
It happened again just two weeks ago.
“I laid down on the bed and told (wife) Lizzy, ‘I can’t even move,’ ” says Paul Lacoste, a physical fitness trainer in the Jackson metro area. “She just laid beside me and held me. There was nothing else she could do, that anybody could do. There is no medicine to take. Nothing to help it.”
Says Lizzy: “It’s hard to believe that this is because a little ol’ mosquito bit him six years ago. And it seems he’s been hurting more and more lately.”
Lacoste, 43, was diagnosed with West Nile in 2012, the virus’ peak point in Mississippi so far — 247 confirmed cases. It is spread by mosquitoes. In severe cases, it affects the central nervous system.
Since his diagnosis, Lacoste has battled kidney cancer, infections that required him to be hospitalized, debilitating headaches and neck pain, full body tremors and crippling fatigue.
“I get so tired that I’ve fallen asleep in the parking lot, sitting behind the steering wheel of my car,” he says. “I’ve fallen asleep in my office, at the gym where I train. They know me so well there that if they see me asleep in a chair or on a couch, they just let me rest.”
Doctors have told Lacoste that he requires two hours of sleep for every hour he works.
But Dr. Arturo Leis, senior scientist at the Center for Neuroscience and Neurological Recovery at Methodist Rehabilitation Center and clinical professor of neurology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, delivered even more humbling news during an office visit in April.
“Dr. Leis told us that we were going to have to accept that this is the new normal for Paul,” Lizzy says. “Most people who get West Nile get over the fatigue part after the five-year mark.
“We have to accept that if we make plans to go somewhere that we might have to cancel. It’s a new way of life for us.”
“I hope your readers take this advice to heart,” Paul says. “Do whatever you have to do to avoid mosquitos as much as possible. My mom used to tell me, ‘You’re outside so much, you should be wearing long sleeves and mosquito repellant.’
“I told her, ‘Mom, I’m in such good shape that if a mosquito bites me, it’ll kill him.’ Now? I wear long sleeves, long pants and mosquito repelant like it’s cologne. I should have listened to my mama.”
West Nile came to the U.S. in 1999. Mississippi’s first cases (192) were diagnosed in 2002.
Sheila Wood of Flowood was one of them.
“I was getting really tired and I was having dizzy spells,” says Wood, 59. “But after a couple of weeks, I started running a fever and throwing up.”
A local clinic gave her Tylenol and told her to go to a hospital emergency room if she wasn’t better in 24 hours.
“I was at the ER the next day, and they admitted me to the hospital,” she says. “They did a CAT scan and decided it was either meningitis or I was having a brain bleed. The only way to know for sure was to do a spinal tap and send it off to be examined.”
The test revealed it was West Nile, “a disease I had heard about on the news but really didn’t know much about it,” says Wood, who works in the health care field. “But by the time I knew what it was, I was having trouble writing, one side of my body was really weak so I had trouble walking.
“It also affected me in other ways. When I returned to work, I had to stop and think about how to do routine things like transfer a phone call.
“I’ve since learned that West Nile can attack your central nervous system, and when that happens you never know what part of your body or brain is going to be affected.”
Sixteen years later, Wood still doesn’t feel 100 percent.
“It’s hard to say I’m back to normal because I don’t know what normal is anymore,” she says. “I ask myself, ‘Am I tired because of the West Nile or because I’m older?’ But I used to see my neurologist every six months. Now, I see her once a year.
“I feel good most days. But I can see how people die from it. I felt so bad at times, and my head hurt so bad, that I honestly thought I’d be better off dead.”
Physical condition saved him
To look at him, no one would know Paul Lacoste is suffering.
“That’s the crazy thing,” he says. “I look like I always have.”
Which means sort of like Hulk Hogan.
“One of the doctors told Paul that while his body may look the same on the outside, he has an 80-year-old body on the inside,” Lizzy says. “That was pretty stunning to hear.”
Lacoste’s first symptoms were similar to Wood’s: excruciating headaches and neck pain. He sought medical help after collapsing one morning in his home.
He went to the ER and tests were run. “They told me I was fine and could go home,” Lacoste says.
He was back at the hospital the next day. While stepping over the threshold of his front door, he tore the quad muscle in his tree-trunk sized right leg.
“They did emergency surgery,” Lacoste recalls, “and when they opened up my leg there were pockets of dead muscle tissue that they had to remove. Then they pumped me full of antibiotics.”
Doctors started asking him unusual questions: Had he been swimming in a pond? Had he trained someone from overseas? Had he eaten any uncooked food?
He answered: “No. But I get bit by mosquitoes.”
“I don’t even know why I said that,” Lascoste says. “But when I did, the doctors looked at each other. They took my blood, and it was West Nile.
“They told me the only reason I had survived that long was because of my physical conditioning.”
But while he is said to be clear of the West Nile virus, studies are showing that the disease carries residual effects that last years.
In 2016, he was diagnosed with kidney cancer — believed to be a direct result of West Nile. Doctors removed a tumor, and Lacoste is cancer free.
He’s had more surgeries to drain leg infections, more antibiotics pumped into his body.
On top of everything, Lacoste came down with the flu in February — more than likely because his immune system was low.
He is under mental stress, too.
On Christmas morning 2012, shortly after being diagnosed with West Nile, his previous wife left him and took their two sons. They later divorced, and his ex-wife moved with the children three hours away, to Ocean Springs.
He sees his boys — Cannon, 11, and Cole 7 — every other weekend. But he continues to fight through the courts for more visitation rights.
“More than the West Nile, I think that really weighs on Paul and stresses him out,” says Lizzy, his wife since 2014.
Lacoste speaks bluntly about the breakup.
“I wasn’t a good dude,” he says. “I never put my hands on her, let’s get that out there. But we would have some terrible arguments.
“I didn’t communicate well, with my ex-wife or with the people I was training. I treated my students like they were pro football players. I used the f-word all the time. I was mean. And I coached mean. I knew I had to make changes in my life.”
Lacoste, who spent time in the NFL and the Canadian Football League, sought the help of a pastor he was training. Lacoste asked him about Scripture, about forgiveness. And on his 40th birthday, in September 2014, he was baptized.
“So there is some good that has come from all of this,” Lacoste says. “If not for the West Nile, I would’ve never realized that God was knocking me down to get my attention. I would’ve never read the Bible. I would’ve never hosted a Bible study in our home like Lizzy and I do. We would’ve never taught first-grade Sunday School like we have.
“I’m trying to be a better man, and I think I am.”
Even with his life taking on new parameters because of the fatigue, Lacoste has goals.
He wants to educate the public about West Nile. “If I can get it and it can do this to me, no one is immune from it,” he says.
To do so, he has had to read studies on West Nile that he avoided for years. He didn’t want to know his prognosis.
“Now I read them and I know that even if you get over West Nile, it could decrease your lifespan because of the residual effects it causes,” he says. “That’s a sobering thought that I have to live with.”
He wants to enjoy the process of training people, relish in the success he sees his students having.
He wants to be a great dad.
“And I want to do everything I can to be here for Lizzy,” he says. “She helped save my life, and she has shown me what true love really is.”