‘STRONGER THAN A HORSE’

To his family, Russell Bell is the bionic man.

The 89-year-old Freetown native, who lives south of Seymour, is a World War II veteran. He worked a total of 42½ years at Arvin Industries and Cummins Inc. He was diagnosed with West Nile virus when he was 80.

Since surviving that, he had a cochlear implant for his left ear, received bilateral lens implants for his eyes and underwent surgery last year. He is now part of a medical experiment testing a new way to sterilize cow heart valves used to replace human heart valves.

“I just think it was a miracle,” Elois Green said of her father living through West Nile and battling through other challenges. “God’s not done with him yet.”

Bell said he has always been active — balancing two jobs for a while, maintaining a half-acre of strawberries or corn and mowing the lawn. West Nile, though, set him back a little.

“I always did work pretty hard. I was pretty well on the go all the time,” he said. “But it slowed me down all right.”

Bell considers himself fortunate to have celebrated his 89th birthday Nov. 22. He had eight siblings, and he’s the only one living.

“I never thought I’d ever make it to 89, but I made it to 89,” Bell said with a smile.

Bell was 18 and working at Arvin in Seymour when he was drafted during World War II. For 16 months in Europe, he was with the 139th signal motor messenger company, which hauled mail to the headquarters in Paris. He never had to serve on the front line.

During his three years in the Army, he earned his general education diploma after taking an examination at Pittsburg High School in California. He didn’t have a high school education.

“I heard the other boys talk about they were going into school to get their GED, and I thought, ‘I believe I want to try that, too,’” he said. “I took the test, and I made better grades than a lot of the guys that had been halfway through high school. I had already been overseas, and that helped me in my exam on some of the stuff, on geography and stuff like that.”

‘I just got sick’

After his stint with the Army, he returned to Indiana and worked 31½ years at Arvin and 11 years at Cummins. He was 62 when he retired, and he then worked three summers at the former Redbrush Park near Seymour.

He had been retired for several years when he contracted West Nile, a mosquito-borne virus.

“I didn’t realize it when I got bit,” he said. “I just got sick and had an awful bad headache and high temperature.”

His temperature was 106, he was vomiting and shaking, and he had lost control of his bodily functions, so his daughter took him to the emergency room.

“When he was admitted and I left him in the hospital that evening, he was fine, he was talking to us,” Green said. “I went back the next morning, and it was almost like he had had a stroke. He could hear, but he couldn’t focus on where the noise was coming from or anything.”

Doctors first thought he had meningitis. But four days into his nearly two-week stay in the hospital, doctors told him he had West Nile.

Bell was treated with antibiotics.

“About all I can remember is when they finally stood me up and said, ‘You’re going to try to walk,’ they had to remove the walker I had a hold of, and I started to take a step and I fainted,” he said.

Mosquito magnet

Bell learned people of advanced age and children are most susceptible to West Nile, and some don’t survive. He said he was fortunate to live through it.

“I heard people had horses that got it, and it killed the horse. I thought, ‘Well, I must be stronger than a horse,’” Bell joked.

Green was happy to see him pull through, too.

“It’s supposed to be almost fatal for the very young and the very old, which is why it shocked me that he made it through,” she said. “I know the year that he had it, there was a 27-year-old in Indiana that died from it.”

Doctors wanted him to go into a nursing home to recover and undergo rehabilitation, but Green chose to take care of him at home. He threw a ball back-and-forth with his wife, Wanda, to keep his arms going, and he walked up-and-down the driveway.

“My joints were all stiff, and I couldn’t hardly do anything,” he said. “I would try to take the blades off of my lawn mower and sharpen them, and I couldn’t hardly do it. That was no job at all for me to do that before I had West Nile. After I got it, for two or three years, I couldn’t do it. That’s what I noticed the most.”

He said his joints eventually loosened up, and it was OK if he was outside and got bit by a mosquito because he was immune to West Nile.

“Mosquitoes used to just love me. If I was out in the yard and there was a mosquito, he would hunt me up and sock it to me,” he said. “I don’t think mosquitoes bite me like they used to.”

A while later, Bell received the cochlear implant since he had no sound in his left ear. The electronic device replaces the function of the damaged inner ear and provides sound signals to the brain.

He later began having breathing issues. While sitting still in his recliner, he would be gasping for air.

‘Had to have it done’

Green took her father to the emergency room, and they found out his blood pressure and pulse were way off. He wound up in the hospital in Indianapolis, and it was determined he had a bad heart valve.

Bell was given the option of participating in the cow valve experiment.

“They used to sterilize them with a chemical, and they said that would cause the valve to start drying out earlier,” Green said. “So now, they have a gas that they use, that they sterilize it with. They want to see how long that valve will last.”

Green said the valve is supposed to last around 10 years. Bell has a yearly checkup so doctors can check the valve’s progress.

It took Bell a month to decide to have the surgery. It was not an easy decision because his wife was in a nursing home battling dementia, and he did not want to leave her.

“I thought maybe, when they put me out to operate on me, I wouldn’t come to no more. I didn’t want to live,” he said. “I finally decided I had to have it done, and maybe it would put me out of my misery if I could just go to sleep when they put me to sleep and not wake up.”

Bell went through the surgery and was in the hospital for five days.

“I felt like I could breathe better, but I was really sore in my chest,” he said. “The doctor said they wired it together, my chest bones, and he said when they put that wire in, they don’t take it out, they leave it in there.”

‘You don’t give up’

Bell said he occasionally feels pain in his chest, but he can breathe better and do a few things. In fact, a few months after the surgery, he was mowing the lawn.

“I was just always used to doing it, and I just wanted to keep on doing it as long as I could,” he said.

He also stayed active indoors by playing Wii bowling. He used to invite neighbors over to play Wednesday nights as part of a league. A plastic trophy went to the winner, which often was Bell.

He plays the game with his grandchildren, too.

“There ain’t many around that can beat me,” he said with a grin.

Bell added there are some things he can’t do anymore, and that has been difficult.

It’s also hard for him to be at home while his wife is in a nursing home. He said he visits her as often as possible. They will celebrate their 69th wedding anniversary in February.

“It’s rough to be without her,” he said.

Bell, though, is grateful to have his daughter around to help him out when needed. She admires him for all he has been through.

“I think he’s just got the attitude that you don’t give up,” she said. “You keep going until you just absolutely cannot go.”

Bell file

Name: Russell Bell

Age: 89

Hometown: Freetown

Residence: Seymour

Employment: U.S. Army, three years; Arvin, 31½ years; Cummins, 11 years; Red Brush Park, three summers

Health: Diagnosed with West Nile virus at age 80; cochlear implant in left ear; bilateral lens implants in eyes; surgery and medical experiment testing a new way to sterilize cow heart valves used to replace human heart valves

Family: Wife, Wanda; two daughters; four grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren

Pull Quote

“Mosquitoes used to just love me. If I was out in the yard and there was a mosquito, he would hunt me up and sock it to me. I don’t think mosquitoes bite me like they used to.”

Russell Bell, on recovering from West Nile virus

Author photo
Zach Spicer is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at zspicer@tribtown.com or 812-523-7080.