A purpose driven life: Tim Thiessen’s miraculous recovery from West Nile virus

By Paul Meadors, Sports Editor
paulmeadors@gmail.com

By all accounts Tim Thiessen is a walking miracle.

Nineteen months ago, the Granite Ridge teacher and baseball instructor was lying in a Methodist Hospital in Arcadia, California, some 250 miles from his Clovis home when his internal organs started to shut down. He was burning with a 105-degree fever and doctors were perplexed how to effectively treat these deadly symptoms.

While he lay on a hospital ice bed of 23 degrees, doctors told his wife, Denise, he may not make it through the night, on his third day of being hospitalized with this mysterious illness.

In other words, Thiessen was a medical mess.

After day seven in intensive care, Thiessen’s case had worsened to the point where his eyes were glossed over and he was semi-conscious, so weak he couldn’t sit or stand up by himself. What in the world was happening to this beloved baseball coach who just yesterday was teaching the game he loved at a Southern California clinic?

There were dozens of tests but zero answers.

The wildly successful baseball coach who led three different high school baseball teams to four Valley titles (Immanuel in 1993 and 1995, Bullard in 1999, Clovis West in 2004) was truly not himself, a shell of a person who was so paralyzed he couldn’t even speak, looking more like a rag doll than a human being. In short, this person was not Tim Thiessen.

Finally, the diagnosis came down: West Nile virus.

We’ve all heard that phrase – West Nile virus – but we don’t quite know what it means or does. Surely, that happens elsewhere, something snatched from the headlines of a website clamoring for more traffic. There’s no way it could hit that close to home right?

But, for Thiessen the struggle was real and even though complications from this virus continue to inflict him over a year and a half later, it will never, ever break his spirit.

Let this be known: Tim Thiessen is a mountain of faith, a transformed man and one eternally devoted to God’s direction and purpose – and he’s not afraid to tell anyone about his journey from deathbed to glory.

“I’m taking it one day at a time and counting my blessings for what I have each day,” says Thiessen sitting in his kitchen in his Clovis home. “I’m learning to trust God even more now than ever before. Not just in my physical state but in everything I do I give to Him.”

He tells stories of when he returned to the house in a wheel chair and had trouble lifting either arm above his head. He shows a video of him trying to swing a whiffle bat in his front yard, barely the strength to make the tiniest of contact. In the video, Thiessen sheepishly smiles, a small laugh that cries: “Oh man, this is a little bit silly.” And this is from a man enshrined as a Fresno State baseball Hall of Famer who was selected in the third round of the 1982 MLB June Amateur draft, playing five years of minor league baseball. His mind was willing but his muscles said otherwise.

Imagine a baseball coach who used to throw hours of batting practice and might not ever throw a baseball again; a P.E. teacher who would physically show his students how to do an exercise might not ever run again. The realities were setting in: physically he might not ever be the man he used to be.

His oldest son, Robbie, was at the hospital when his father was at his worst, shaken by the dramatic turn he saw. But he, like his family, never lost hope.

“He appeared as if it wasn’t really him, like the life was being drained out of him by the hour,” said Robbie. “He looked like a pale, old version of himself but knowing God was in control, I felt as if God was healing him as we watched him lay there.”

With faith that can move mountains and finding strength from above, Thiessen truly has made a remarkable recovery.

“Right now I can do everything in life I need to do,” continues Thiessen. “I can sleep well, I still get fatigued but I’m starting to regain my strength in the little things I do. Some of the muscles that I took for granted are starting to work.”

Denise, wife of 31 years chimes in: “You should have seen him when he came home. This is what we’re trying to build up,” pointing to his arms and chest. Thiessen lost 30 pounds in the first 14 days.

“Think of a tire full of air,” says Thiessen. “Then the cap is removed and hisssssssssssss…That was my muscle mass.”

His physical therapist doctor put it to Thiessen this way: “Number one, it’s a miracle you’re alive. And number two, it’s a miracle you’re able to do the things you’re able to do today.”

A miracle indeed. Not only was he diagnosed with West Nile but as a result of the virus he also contracted Spinal Meningitis, encephalitis, had kidney failure, urinary retention and Guillian-Barre syndrome, which causes paralysis and weakness in the body.

According to the Center for Disease and Control and Prevention, the West Nile Virus seriously affects less than 1 percent of people who are infected. Most people who are infected feel no affects whatsoever. The virus is commonly caused by a mosquito bite.

Thiessen, father of four, doesn’t know where and when he got bit, but he does know that a few days before the baseball camp down in Southern California he was at his daughter’s (Rainie) graduation ceremony at Pepperdine and started to feel unusually tired. He took a three-hour nap that day and surprised himself when he slept nine hours throughout the night. He was rushed to the ER after day three of the Baseball Factory clinic by roommate Ryan Little after falling out of his bed and complaining of massive dizziness.

He entered the hospital on August 3, 2014 and 16 days later he finally left the Arcadia hospital, escaping all their medications and tubes and loudness and chaos. Thiessen does not remember much from his stay, most stories are told by family members or video or pictures.

Riding by ambulance on a gurney from the Arcadia hospital straight to San Joaquin Rehab, conveniently two miles from his home, Thiessen spent 14 more days there, enduring over 120 physical therapy sessions. And they didn’t take it easy on him; they made him work for it. He thinks his grind-it-out attitude, stemming from his athletic days, played a part in his resiliency.

Talk about baby steps – Thiessen literally had to get back to basics and walk that walk.

Denise now took on the role of caretaker, lifting him from chair to bathroom to bedroom—a challenge she took on full steam ahead. Of course she would, Tim was the love of her life, a husband bound by a covenant not easily broken.

“It’s an honor and a privilege to be married to Tim. It was hard for sure but anybody would do it for Tim,” Denise says.

Thiessen, against all odds, went back to teaching P.E. and health at Granite Ridge Jr. High six months after he first got sick. The Clovis North community donated their personal sick leave with principal Scott Dille actually having a good problem to solve—the staff donated too many hours—proving again how loved and respected Thiessen was at the school.

Thiessen could barely write on the classroom’s white board; his left arm had to support his right arm while writing, but no matter, he was as tough as nails and wasn’t about to let this setback beat him down. He was allotted to take naps during the day to regain his strength. He didn’t take even one.

At the same time, Dille noticed a transformation in Thiessen when he returned to work. No, not just his physical transformation like needing the aid of a walker, but a different type of transformation—a change in his outlook on life. You see, Thiessen had a choice: come back bitter and angry or make the best of an unfortunate situation. He chose the latter.

“Tim has always been a man of faith, that’s always been there,” says Dille. “His compassion for people was always there as well, but when he returned to work the smile on his face was peaceful and his appreciation for the simple things in life came through.

“He now deeply wants to know how you’re doing. It’s gentle and compassionate. When he came back you just feel you can’t complain about anything because there’s Tim sitting there at a staff meeting, reminding you of how precious life is.”

If there is some divine comedy in all this, then God was surely on point. Thiessen cheekily says to be careful what you pray for: “The last couple of days in July 2013, I prayed that God would do something supernatural at that event (the Baseball Factory camp in SoCal) that would cause my colleagues to see Christ in me. Of course I wasn’t thinking anything major, you know, just put a thought in their mind or simply cause a conversation.

“After ICU I’m laying quietly in my bed with no one around and I’m starting to make sense of all this. I didn’t forget the prayer even in that state. I knew God was going to use this for his glory somehow and the day was going to come where I am going to be able to speak and share this experience for His glory.”

It’s already begun; Thiessen has shared his story in no less than 15 different functions and has already built a stage and platform to tell his story from deathbed to glory.

In fact, he’s developed a strong relationship with two former students who Thiessen shared his story with, one who two days later dedicated his life to God.

Think back to that first prayer – God sure does work in mysterious ways and in the process can transform a man, father, husband, teacher into a new creature.

“He is now filled with more life, is more focused and more of a man of God than ever before,” says Robbie, who is the father of Thiessen’s only grandchild, 5-month old Alice.

It took a twist of fate, a gust of wind could have sent the mosquito away, for Tim Thiessen to see the world through a different lens, a lens so clear that, even though his body is broken, his purpose shines through.

“Would I ever want to do this again? No. Did I learn a lot from this? Yes,” Thiessen said. “Certainly it changed my life. I look at things differently. I look at my wife differently. I look at my kids differently. I look at my students differently. It makes us get to the point of loving people the way that we should love them.”

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