A common cold-sore virus that is a nuisance to most Americans was the culprit in the untimely death Monday of Phat Kat Tattoo owner Jeffery Rahenkamp.
"Only one drug can be used to combat it," said Kathleen Rahenkamp, "Jeff" Rahenkamp's mother. "In his case, he did not respond to the antiviral medications."
The 62-year-old mother of six children said complications from herpes simplex virus Type 1, which usually just causes annoying blisters around the mouth, infected her 38-year-old son's brain, causing encephalitis.
In the midst of her grief, Rahenkamp said she is trying to organize a public memorial for her son, who had many friends in the area. She said her son would probably prefer to throw a party.
Rahenkamp said she and other family members had gathered around her son's bed as he died on Monday afternoon.
"We were singing 'Amazing Grace' to him as he passed," she said. "This is not something we could have ever imagined in our wildest dreams."
Rahenkamp said she is normally a quiet, conservative person compared to her outgoing, colorful son.
"Jeff's message to this community is that you can rise above whatever you are in this life," she said, adding that she was amazed that more than 100 people showed up at the hospital to wish her son well.
"Many of them told me how Jeff had positively impacted their lives, even when they were at their lowest — people who just came by to say they love him and say how much he meant to them," she said.
Her son went to the emergency room for the first time on June 24, the same day his father, 66-year-old Gene Rahenkamp, went in the hospital for knee surgery.
Rahenkamp said her son had pneumonia, and doctors initially thought he had suffered a stroke, but an MRI ruled out that diagnosis.
Tests on Rahenkamp's spinal fluid revealed the herpes virus, she said.
Rahenkamp said the virus has a 1 in 500,000 chance of traveling to the brain.
Dr. John Townes, an infectious disease specialist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, said a majority of people have the herpes simplex virus Type 1 by the time they are adults.
"Almost everybody has it whether they know it or not," he said.
Most children have the virus, which usually lays dormant but can be reactivated later, Townes said.
Symptoms of the virus are usually sores around the lips, but in certain rare instances the virus can travel up a nerve leading to the cranium. Once in the brain, the virus is difficult to treat.
"There is a very high mortality associated with the necrotizing inflammatory reaction that takes place in the brain," Townes said.
Townes, who did not treat Rahenkamp, said he sees only about one case of the herpes virus in the brain during a given year.
He said there are no known methods to prevent the virus from attacking the brain.
Rahenkamp didn't have insurance, and friends are trying to gather funds to help pay his medical bills. A medical fund has been set up at Rogue Federal Credit Union. The fund number is 1530170.
Donations toward Rahenkamp's medical fund also can be made online at www.orcaseo.com/official-funding-page-for-jeffs-medical-fund.
David Parnell, owner of 42 Degrees Smoke Shop, said the store's annual 710 sale will donate its proceeds to Rahenkamp's medical bills.
The store, at 613 E. Main St., will start the sale today at 10 a.m. Glass-blowing and other activities will be featured throughout the day, and many of the glass pieces will be auctioned.
Parnell said the display cases in his store were purchased from Rahenkamp, who formerly had a tattoo shop and smoke shop in Yreka.
"He's one of our really close friends," he said.
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org.