CJ and his mother Kim
on Mother's Day last year
By Michael Butler
Being in the radio business has allowed me to get to know lots of people. It's one of the perks of the profession.
One of our faithful listeners at WTLS is CJ Ledbetter.
I first got to know CJ through our Tallassee Tigers sports broadcasts. He was the starting quarterback at THS in the early 2000s.
A lot has changed in CJ's life since then. Now 33, CJ has DPPX antibody-associated encephalitis.
His mother, Kim Watkins, talked about the illness.
"DPPX is an autoimmune (disease) that attacks CJ's central nervous system," she said. "The disease is terminal with 39 cases diagnosed in the world. 17 percent of those have deceased."
The first signs of something being wrong came in 2012.
"We knew he had something, but wasn't sure what it was," Kim noted. "It was after we exhausted all options that we were pointed in the direction of the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. His first visit was in March 2013, and we were there for eight weeks.
"He was run through a battery of tests, procedures and biopsies. It was determined that he had a rare antibody that mimicked Lupus. At that time, he was prescribed a multitude of medications. They seemed to help him, and he was able to gain some of his weight back."
CJ listening to WTLS on the TuneIn app
at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota
Still, it was just the beginning of a saga of trips to and from different hospitals.
"On Aug. 6, 2013, his temperature was 87. We were told he was septic," his mother recalled. "He was placed in ICU where he aspirated, had a heart attack and ended up on a respirator. He was transferred to Emory Untiversity in Atlanta and was in ICU for 10 weeks. At that time, he lost down to below 100 pounds. He lost the ability to swallow, urinate and walk. His vocal cords were paralyzed, and he lost the ability to speak."
CJ was given feeding tubes, used a ventilator and eventually had a tracheotomy. Even with such a grim outlook - doctors said the conditions would likely be permanent - the family remained optimistic.
"We believed God would have the last word," Kim proclaimed.
Over the next few years, CJ showed improvement. In the process, he continued monthly treatments with plasmapheresis and chemotherapy. He currently takes 12 medications daily.
"We've been to the Mayo five times over the last six years. He's been hospitalized 20 times with 15 surgeries and two amputations," Kim added. "He is scheduled to go back to the Mayo the week of March 11 and could possibly be there for two weeks. He will see neurology, neuropathology and sleep medicine. These are the same group of doctors that diangosed CJ with the DPPX antibody six years ago.
"This visit is crucial for CJ's vitality. He needs to be reevaluated to see if his treatment plan needs to be adjusted in any way, and to see if any other patients that have this same disease may be responding better to different drugs. Maybe CJ could help others as well."
The card CJ gave his mother on Valentine's Day
CJ is now in his second week at East Alabama Medical Center. On Valentine's Day last week, he found the strength to offer a gift to his loving mother.
"To show his heart during the battle of his life," she said, "he made me a Valentine's card during his quiet time. This boy loves his mama."
When I hear of the difficult road ahead for CJ, I know he's capable of defying the odds. I've seen it.
At the 2004 THS homecoming pep rally, a contest pitted the quarterback of the 1984 season, Shane Yankey, vs. the QB that season - Mr. Ledbetter.
Who's the best passer? It was supposed to be rigged in Yankey's favor with task of throwing a football through a hula hoop. CJ; on the other hand, had to make his toss through the microscopic window of a miniature Nerf ball hoop.
It's legend now. We all know how it turned out.
*Donate to CJ's GoFundMe account to assist with medical expenses.
CJ Highlight TD Pass vs. Anniston (Oct. 1, 2004)