The tattoo on Richard Jenkins’ left shin is of a black widow spider. Right below the spider tattoo is a circular scar, smaller than a pencil eraser. Both mark the spot where Jenkins believes a black widow spider bit this 31-year-old exterminator seven years ago and left a husband and father of two daughters so sick that without new lungs and a new heart, he will likely die.
“I was crawling under a house and I felt a sting on my leg, like a hypodermic needle,” Jenkins said of the bite that wrecked his health. “I saw spiders down there. Black widows. But I had seen snakes so many times, spiders, stuff in my job. I didn‘t know I got bit.”
Jenkins sought treatment but the spider bite was not diagnosed – he was told it was an ingrown hair. Then he was told it was shingles. He received no antibiotics. Within weeks, he was in a coma from the spider’s venom. His health has deteriorated for years. He has a defibrillator and a pacemaker embedded in his chest just under the skin that sticks out – and that keeps him from dying. He suffers from a disease of his heart called endocarditis caused by a bacterial infection that started under that house in 2006.
“One time, he did die until he was shocked back,” said Laura Jenkins, his wife of 11 years.
An oxygen tank sits behind the chair where Richard Jenkins sits. And now Jenkins has to get a heart transplant, and a double lung transplant, to survive. Even with Medicare, the cost will be at least $400,000.
The Jenkins survive on $1,100 a month disability. They have doctor bills that have reached the tens of thousands of dollars. He has one pump attached to his body that keeps life-giving medication in his system.
“We sure don’t have $400,000,” Laura Jenkins said. “Just one of his medicines is $30,000 – a month.”
Jenkins was told that he makes $56 a month too much to qualify for full medical benefits. With changes in health care laws, the Jenkins’s have re-applied for Medicaid.
Yet the cost of transplants hovers over this family. Before he was bitten, Jenkins was an active working guy. He and his wife had just had their first daughter, Chloe. The couple hiked and camped, and Jenkins liked to drive his four-wheel drive truck and work in the exterminator business founded by his grandfather.
“I even worked as a mechanic to make extra money,” Jenkins said. “Before that I worked at Carowinds, and at the old Pizza Inn. I always worked.”
But all that changed with that single bite and that little scar. His family has been good to him, and his church, Grace Church of the Nazarene, has helped, too.
“What this young man has had to go through is just the worst thing anybody could have happen,” said Lois Pittman, a friend from church.
Veins in his left lower leg had to be reconstructed with veins from his right leg. Both are covered in scars. Jenkins has had to learn to live a life where he cannot drive himself and can barely walk around. He can’t play physically with his younger daughter, McKinley, just a year old. But he has endured through toughness, and prayer.
“I never thought the itsy bitsy spider would be what took me out,” Jenkins said. “It is like I lost the years from age 25 until now.”
The family is scheduled to head to Durham, N.C., next month, where Jenkins will undergo a battery of tests in preparation for the transplants at Duke University’s medical center.
“Here I am a UNC Tar Heels fan all my life and I never have seen a basketball game in person and I am going to the hospital of UNC’s biggest rival, Duke, to see if I can survive,” Jenkins said.
The family will have to stay in a motel that they cannot afford, but they have no choice but to find the money for it. He will have to get on a waiting list for the heart and lungs that might be his only hope.
“We have to do what we can to try and keep him alive,” Laura Jenkins, his devoted wife, said.
It seems that the last thing that Richard Jenkins would want on his leg is a tattoo of a spider. But there it is. He went one day and got the tattoo – he did not tell his wife, who would have screamed against it because of the blood medications Richard takes – but he got it anyway.
“I can swat it,” Jenkins said of the tattoo. “Kind of like I am knocking it off. But...all those years ago I didn’t swat it. It got me. It got me good.”
Jenkins hopes to be able to be a part of his daughters growing up. To share in their lives and teach them and hug them and protect them. The oldest daughter, Chloe, hopes so, too.
“I just want my daddy to be able to get a job again,” Chloe said. “I want him to stay here with us. In the winter when it is cold, like it was two weeks ago, he can’t even build a snowman with me. I want my daddy to be all back here with me.”