As Jacob Savoie sips his coffee and talks, I can’t help but notice that there is something about him. It isn’t the exasperation he used to feel when his family couldn’t comprehend his mumbled gibberish. It isn’t a blank expression, as he may have once had while trying to recall his brother’s name. It isn’t the terror that engulfed him and his family for months. It is life.
It is a life that—for a time during 2007, his senior year at LSU—came to a halt. The sudden onset of severe flu-like symptoms made him miss work and class. After the symptoms sent him to the emergency room, he even missed the Bacchus Ball in New Orleans.
“It was unbelievable,” Savoie says of the blurred vision and interval migraines that caught him off-guard while waiting tables at Sullivan’s Steakhouse.
Savoie was diagnosed with encephalitis, a severe disease that, when it doesn’t kill you, seriously messes with your mind.
“He tried speaking to me, but I had no clue as to what he was saying,” says Jonathan Savoie, Jacob’s younger brother and then-roommate. “Internally, he knew what he wanted to say, but [he] couldn’t express it verbally. When asked about the names of everyday items, he would not only call an item by the wrong name but sometimes forget the word entirely.”
It wasn’t only everyday items’ names that escaped Savoie. At the onset of the disease, he didn’t know his own mother’s name. He resorted to assigning each friend and family member a number.
Encephalitis, triggered by a viral infection, causes the brain to swell, resulting in fever, severe headaches, confusion and personality changes. While most instances are mild and can even go unnoticed, a severe case like Savoie’s is often overlooked and not diagnosed in time, making the disease fatal. Because so many cases are overlooked, it’s impossible to know how many people the disease affects. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, 10,000-20,000 cases are reported each year.
“Encephalitis can be a devastating illness,” says Tom Solomon, a professor at the University of Liverpool and member of The Encephalitis Society Professional Panel. “Approximately 10% of patients die, and typically 50% of patients are left with severe disability. This may be a physical disability, but often also includes neuropsychiatric and psychological problems.”
After his diagnosis and a two-week hospital stay, Savoie spent months recovering at his parents’ home in Carencro.
He worked with a communication therapist to strengthen his memory, which was still faulty from the disease.
“We did some identification worksheets with common items, and I’d have to figure out what it was,” Savoie says, gesturing to a stool to demonstrate. “I could say almost anything other than that word. I could tell you ‘That’s not a chair, or a table.’ I just couldn’t get the word out.”
During his therapy, his younger cousin asked him to sponsor her for confirmation into the Catholic Church. To do this, he would need to attend several training sessions, and more terrifying to Savoie, he would have to recite a short memorized phrase during the ceremony.
Savoie practiced his lines the entire week before the service, saying those elusive words over and over again. When the designated Sunday came, he tucked a cheat sheet into his jacket pocket to practice with during Mass. He escorted his cousin to the priest and confidently said, “Father, I present to you: Anne.”
Even once his memorization capabilities began to return, Savoie still demonstrated erratic and irrational behavior.
“His behavior was so bizarre, but from the outward appearance he looked normal,” says Jackie Savoie, Jacob’s mother. “I never knew when he left if he would come home with a tattoo, have joined the armed forces or have gotten married. He had a new idea every day, and each was as strange as the day before.”
Seeing her son like this struck Jackie with grief. “To describe my Jacob before encephalitis, I would have to use adjectives like outgoing, always very mature for his age, friendly, very level-headed in all decisions and very intelligent,” she says. “To see him slip away into a Jacob that no one knew was heartbreaking.”
Savoie returned to LSU the summer after his recovery to complete his final semester and graduate. He continued his internship at The Shaw Group as well. The effects of encephalitis remained prevalent, but he was getting better. He graduated in December that year and quickly secured a sales job in Washington, D.C., where he met his future wife.
Sarah Savoie, also an LSU graduate, was the first new person he’d truly gotten close to since his battle began more than a year earlier.
“He told me about his survival of encephalitis about a month after we started dating,” Sarah says. “He was nervous that I would view him differently. And of course, I didn’t. If anything, it made me love him even more. I loved that he was a miracle, and that he was so brave and strong.”
According to his family, some aspects of Savoie’s personality have changed since that long year. His laugh, his sense of humor … certain nuances. “I don’t think you can go through something like that and not be changed,” Sarah Savoie says.
While that may be true, the core of Savoie’s essence never wavered: life. He celebrates it. He enjoys it. He exudes it.
“It’s given me a different outlook on life,” Savoie says, explaining that he is healed of the virus. “It wasn’t until later that I was functioning correctly again [and] I realized, really, what a serious illness this is and what the odds are of surviving. I’m able to look at my life differently. At this point, all I can do is look back and be so thankful that I survived.”