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Alexandria man battles cancer, West Nile at same time

Jim Davies of Alexandria demonstrates one of the machines he uses to help magnify documents at his office. Davies lost part of his vision after a bout with West Nile virus in 2012, during which time he was also fighting cancer. (Daily Republic photo)1 / 2
Jim Davies of Alexandria smiles at his office during a recent interview. Davies fought off cancer and West Nile virus at the same time. (Daily Republic photo)2 / 2

ALEXANDRIA -- Jim Davies talks about the events of the last year in a calm, matter-of-fact way.

He's had cancer. He's had West Nile.

At the same time.

"Everybody's life's got pylons in the road. It's just they're not the same ones," he said with a small smile.

It's the same calm approach he takes to everything, said Camille, his wife of nearly 40 years.

"He just takes it in stride and does what he can to make it better," she said. "He's pretty tough."

He's had to be. Jim, a 66-year-old Alexandria resident and attorney, was first diagnosed with prostate cancer about six years ago. While still battling that, he was diagnosed with colon cancer. He said when he went in for surgery to "clean up" some of the prostate cancer that had been missed, that's when doctors found out he had colon cancer.

"It was just blind, dumb luck that they found it," Davies said.

In August 2012, in the midst of undergoing chemotherapy, Davies said he started to feel even worse.

"I just wrote it off to a bad reaction to the chemo," he said. "I really didn't have a clue it might be West Nile."

But Camille knew something more serious was going on.

"I walked in the house on a Saturday afternoon and he was lying on the couch; he was burning up and really disoriented," she said. "I knew we had to get to the hospital."

Jim said he checked into the emergency room, and that's the last thing he remembers for about two weeks. When he left the hospital, around Labor Day, Jim said it took awhile to get up to speed.

"The first thing you do when you get out is try to ask someone what's happened, try to catch up," he said.

Camille said that while Jim was in the hospital, he was conscious but not fully aware of what was going on around him. At first, Camille said the doctors thought Jim had pneumonia. After a few tests, they determined it was West Nile virus.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, West Nile is a virus most commonly borne by infected mosquitoes. The virus can cause febrile (fever) illness, encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) or meningitis.

According to the South Dakota Department of Health, there were 332 cases of West Nile and 26 West Nile-associated deaths in the state from 2002 to 2011.

When doctors told Camille the West Nile was affecting Jim's eyes, she decided to have Jim transferred to an intensive care unit in Sioux Falls. Camille admits she wasn't sure if Jim would make it.

"He was really out of it for a few days," she said. "That's when I thought the outcome wasn't going to be good."

The CDC says most people infected with West Nile have no symptoms, while about 1 in 5 people who are infected will develop a fever with other symptoms. Less than 1 percent of infected people develop a serious, sometimes fatal, neurologic illness. Camille said doctors surmise Jim's severe reaction was, in part, due to an immune system already compromised by chemotherapy and cancer.

"Some people with West Nile don't get that sick, but he did because he was already in a weakened state," Camille said. "He was just at the wrong place in the wrong time with the mosquitoes, I guess."

She suspects Jim contracted the virus when he was outside, working in his garden.

"He's a big gardener," she said. "That's his escape."

Camille said the community rallied behind her and Jim throughout Jim's treatment. Their employers accommodated the time off Jim and Camille needed, clients remained loyal, and friends and family, including their two sons, Jamie and Josh, provided moral support.

"Our friends around here just took such good care of us," Camille said. "That's one of the benefits of living in a small town."

It took some time, but Jim has recovered well. But the after-effects of West Nile were severe, leaving Jim nearly blind when he first left the hospital.

For nearly six weeks, Jim couldn't drive and could barely see to work. Documents, which typically range from 9- to 12-point font size, needed to be from 28- to 40-point font so he could read them.

Originally, Davies said his eye doctor told him the blindness was likely permanent, and there would be no improvement.

"He's said that every time I've seen him, and he's been wrong every time," Davies said. "Which makes me happier."

After six weeks, his eye doctor cleared him to drive. The time in between was the hardest, Davies said.

"That was the longest six weeks," he said.

He credits the South Dakota Rehabilitation Center for the Blind in Sioux Falls for lending support and helping him find specialized equipment that helps him at work and at home. In his office, a machine somewhat similar to an overhead projector allows Davies to read the text on printed documents on a large, flat computer screen.

A smaller, more portable version acts as a digital magnifying glass, which Davies can pass over documents on his desk or take with him.

"It means I can almost function as I did before," he said.

It's a relief to the busy lawyer, who serves as Hanson County's state's attorney, Alexandria's city attorney and has a private practice. It's a relief to those he serves, as well, and to other lawyers who know him. Jim Miskimins, Davison County state's attorney, said he has known Jim Davies since 1989 and admires Davies personally and professionally.

"Jim's a fine lawyer and a fine prosecutor," Miskimins said. "He really exemplifies what a small-town county lawyer is all about, from representing the people who elected him as their prosecutor and chief legal adviser, to county officials, right on down to every will and tax return he does for his private clients."

Other effects of his illnesses remain, as well. He wiped his face with a towel during a recent interview, saying he has hot flashes, a reaction to the hormone treatments he takes to manage his prostate cancer. In addition to the lessened vision, Davies said he's noticed diminished strength and persistently achy joints, which he attributes to West Nile.

"At least that's what I blame it on," he said with a chuckle.

But, for the most part, Jim and Camille said they are grateful the worst seems to be behind them.

"It was very hard on us both, but he fought the good battle and we had very good doctors that took care of him," Camille said. "We've got a lot to be thankful for."