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Buck Benoist

Buck Benoist

L ooking at one of the last photos taken of Buck Roy Benoist, one gets the impression he was a fit man, not rugged in statute but rugged in looks, with a demeanor that implied he was a man of the American West.

In fact he was-hailing from South Dakota and a member of the Lakota Indian Tribe, with a last name that hints he was partly a descendent of a one of the many French-Canadian trappers who helped settle that rugged part of the country. How he ended up in Exeter, RI is a story that started out in happiness for two people who found a late-in-life relationship and ended last August in tragedy, the latter caused by a tick carrying a disease.

His widow, Carla Neubert Benoist, still breaks down when she describes her husband's ordeal. Her only company in her Exeter home these days are three dogs which were part of the story as to how they met.

Carla has always loved dogs and she loved to write poetry. Several years ago, she posted some poetry on the Internet and she got a reply from Buck Roy Benoist who happened to be visiting someone in Pennsylvania.

In the Internet chat she let him know that she lived with four big dogs--Carla has long been involved with greyhound adoption agencies. "His reply was that he wanted to meet me because he felt he could trust a woman who had four big dogs," recalls Carla.

Buck Roy Benoist was raised on his father's cattle ranch on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation. The ranch is now underwater, thanks to a hydroelectric project. Buck Roy eventually got a degree in watershed science from Western Washington University and spent a lot of time outdoors.

Buck and Carla were married in 2000 in a small ceremony conducted at URI where Carla was an office worker.

In 2001, Buck withstood a liver cancer attack and partly through a healthy diet rebounded. "He had lowered his blood pressure and cholesterol levels and we were eating a healthy diet with little red meat and much fish," she says. He enjoyed working outdoors in the yard of their modest Exeter home but what he really enjoyed, relates Carla, was substitute teaching in South Kingstown schools.

Buck was always careful when he worked outdoors, always conscious of ticks, says Carla. "He always checked himself and wore white socks," in order to spot any ticks. "I checked him too," she adds.

But then a couple years ago Buck started complaining that he would get tired easily. "He would go out in the yard and get tired from nothing," she said noting that Buck was not a big complainer. "He is one who would have covered up a broken leg-he had that western stoicism," she says.

Buck visited the Narragansett Indian Tribe clinic (the Native Americans have reciprocal arrangements between tribes) saying he was feeling bad and could not explain it. The clinic referred him to the Veterans Administration Hospital in Providence (Buck was a Marine in the early days of the Vietnam War). Carla drove Buck up to the VA Hospital.

Buck's own theory was that he was having an angina spell and the VA doctors thought so too, said Carla. "His blood pressure was good, his cholesterol was down and all of his organs were good including his liver," she says. They decided to keep him overnight. She left him at the hospital at 2:30 in the afternoon.

"At 8:30 that night, he called and said they were keeping an eye on him and that he would see me tomorrow. That was the last time I talked to him."

At 2:30 in the morning, Carla got a call from the VA Hospital that they were transferring him to Miriam Hospital for a whole blood transfusion "because he had a severe systemic babesia infection which they were unable to treat effectively."

"I got a lot of prayer chains going," says Carla who went right up to Miriam.

Buck was put on a respirator and medication to keep his blood pressure up and was kept in a drug-induced coma. He had two full blood transfusions-according to Buck's doctor "that's practically unheard of," Carla said.

After about a week and a half, Buck suffered two strokes-they were not detected until two days later by CAT scan.

When Carla got the phone call about Buck's strokes, she was informed that 2/3rds of the left side of his brain was lost. She went into a room and screamed "No!" repeatedly for 10 minutes.

She called Buck's son and daughter-in-law in Oklahoma and they came to Rhode Island. The three of them were at Buck's side when life support was disconnected. He died on August 30 at 2:40 p.m., two weeks to the day after he was admitted to the VA Hospital. He was 66.

To this day, Carla does not know where Buck contacted the infected tick that gave him babesia. It could have been in Washington State but when she contacted Dr. Thomas Mather, director of URI's Center for Vector-Borne Disease, he doubted that theory. The tick encounter could have been in their own backyard. "There was no tell-tale bulls-eye indicating a tick bite," she says. But with babesiosis, there wouldn't be.

Carla believes the struggle Buck had fighting the massive babesia infection triggered the strokes. "The burden of the treatment was just too much for his system." If he had survived he would have needed a trachea tube, would have lost the use of one arm and be confined to a wheelchair, says Carla. "He wouldn't want that."

Carla is quite familiar with tick-borne diseases through all her work rescuing dogs, especially greyhounds. She herself has had Lyme disease which she feels has left her with severe rheumatoid arthritis.

"It's sad-if it had been caught two months earlier, he might have survived. It strikes me that it was never detected," she says. "Someday, someone will come up with a good diagnostic system."

"I am also extremely determined that people should stop taking tick-borne diseases for granted or acting as if they were treatable and non-life threatening,"

Next spring, Carla plans to travel to South Dakota and visit Buck's favorite place to spread his ashes. In the meantime, she has nothing but praise for Mather's work in pushing the message that tick-borne diseases are preventable. "His is kind of a crusade. This is not a trivial disease-it is one that can happen to anybody."

She admits it has taken her time to be in a frame of mind to be interviewed. But Buck's story may help people, she says. "I intend to do something and I am willing to talk to people. Buck would want me to."

Written By Rudi Hempe