Jacksonville-area sailor battles for his life after Eastern equine encephalitis put him in a coma

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A mosquito bite put a local sailor into a coma. Now, he's relearning how to talk.

He shared his battle with an illness that almost killed him with Action News Jax anchor John Bachman.

"Sit," said Navy Chief Bob Stearns.

Stearns is re-learning how to say the simple command. His Great Dane is learning how to do it. Together, they are defying the odds.

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Two years ago, Labor Day weekend, Stearns went golfing with some Navy buddies. The mosquitoes were out. The next day, he told his wife, Jolly, that he felt dizzy. Two days later, she rushed him to the hospital and he stopped talking.

"I just started to panic. He was fine two days ago -- he went golfing, he went to work, then he got sick. Just thought he had a headache, caught something," Jolly Stearns said.

Bob Stearns was running a fever. Doctors put him into a coma to protect his body from whatever was attacking him.

"He was unable to talk unable to communicate with us," Jolly Stearns said.

Jolly Stearns feared she was losing her husband. "Yeah, like right there, does he know I'm still here?"

Bob Stearns was in St. Vincent's Hospital for a month. Doctors eventually figured out it was Eastern equine encephalitis. A tiny mosquito nearly killed this big Navy chief.

"Even though the occurrence of it is not many people when it does occur it can be really serious," Dr. Anthony Fauci, with the National Institutes of Health said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on average only seven people in the U.S. get EEE each year. However, one-third of them die. Doctors warned Jolly Stearns that those who survive usually deal with long-term effects, like not walking or talking.

"I shouldn't be walking but I'm walking," Bob Stearns said. Jolly Stearns helped by adding, "I shouldn't be walking but I'm walking."

Bob Stearns has regained his strength and is working with a speech therapist several times a week. Their focus is to "Think loud." A reminder sign hangs on the refrigerator.

"You got to think loud got to get it out there so that's why we have to think loud," Jolly Stearns said.

Bob Stearns has a lot to say and you can tell it frustrates him not to be able to say everything that's on his mind.

"Talk better," he said. Jolly Stearns added, "To have his speech back to have him feel that confidence again and not have people feel bad for him because they shouldn't."

They're sharing their story, as rare as it is devastating, to warn others that it can happen. It did happen -- here. When asked the one thing he'd tell people, Bob Stearns was quick to answer, "Bug spray. Bug spray."

Bob Stearns wasn't wearing bug spray golfing two years ago. Now, he sprays -- and hopes. He hopes he can relearn the speech stolen by a bite that nearly killed him.

"Try to hope, try to hope," Bob Stearns said and Jolly Stearns added, "Try to hope ... but no one knows."