With the aid of a metal walker, a thinner and slightly stooped Evergreen Park Mayor James Sexton walked into the village board council chambers on Monday, Oct. 15.
For the first time since July 16 he sat down behind his nameplate and promptly gaveled a village board meeting to order. When his name was called as part of Village Clerk Catherine Aparo's roll call, the entire room stood and applauded.
"It's been a while," he said. "I've missed you all."
Sexton has been recovering from the effects of West Nile Virus since late July. Much about his illness, including where he had been hospitalized and when he would return, was closely guarded by his family and village officials. Even village employees gathered before Monday night's meeting were speculating about whether he would be back that night.
The applause seemed genuinely spontaneous – as genuine as the concern for the mayor's health these past weeks and as genuine as the gratitude Sexton expressed Monday night as he addressed those in the council chambers.
"I want to thank everyone, and my family thanks everyone who sent cards, well wishes and especially prayers," Sexton said. "Because there was a while there where all I had was prayers. Without your prayers, I don't think I'd be sitting here."
As it turned out, Sexton had been hospitalized at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn for a number of weeks beginning on July 30. That's the day he said he started feeling aches and a pain in his neck and suffering a bout of profuse sweating. "It was like the worst flu you've ever had," he recalled.
It took three tests to confirm the presence of the West Nile Virus. The first two came back negative for the virus. With the confirmation, Sexton joined a sizable group of people in the Chicago area and the nation who came down with the disease this year.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4,249 cases of West Nile have been confirmed nationwide, with 168 deaths. The Illinois Department of Public Health reported 185 cases in the state, with seven deaths, including 76-year-old Lombard Village President William J. "Bill" Mueller, who died from the virus on Aug. 18, and Chicago firefighter Thomas Flahive, who died Oct. 4.
Mueller was also battling bone marrow cancer. Flahive, 58, was said to be in good health. Sexton, 60, was so far as I knew otherwise healthy when he was struck by the virus. At more than six feet tall and of full frame, Sexton carried himself with a presence that fit the job of being the Evergreen Park's chief executive. When he entered the council chambers on Monday, his obvious weight loss and weakness were striking.
During his time in the hospital, and recovering at home, Sexton said he lost 45 pounds. Based on the way his suit jacket hung loosely off his shoulders Monday night, not many people would doubt that. Sexton said he no longer has a taste for many things he used to eat. Such as? "It wasn't pretty," he said. "I kept a lot of the guys on 95th Street in business."
Also noticeable was a neck brace helping him hold his head up, and a lack of muscle tone and coordination. My first thought when I saw Sexton was that he closely resembled how my father looked and acted right after his stroke in 2011.
Sexton said he is undergoing physical and speech therapy at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and expects to make a full recovery. He said it may take up to 12 months to get better.
"After my physical therapy is over, I expect nothing less than 100 percent. I'm in a walker now, as you can see, but before long I expect to be throwing that away," he said.
Sexton praised the village board members and the village department heads with keeping things running in his absence. Evergreen Park officials were adamant that even while he was in the hospital, Sexton was being kept up to date on village goings-on. Trustee Jerry Bosch ran the village board meetings while Sexton was gone.
Sexton asserted immediate control over the proceedings on Monday. Even at less than full strength and with time taken for the ovation and for Sexton to thank everyone for their well wishes and prayers, he hammered the meeting into adjournment at 7:46 p.m. Sixteen minutes. With efficiency like that, his walker may be relegated to a closet somewhere sooner than anyone expects.