On Sunday, two people from Bakersfield shared their battle with valley fever, including a woman who lost 45 pounds and went blind and a man who, 21 years after diagnosis, still only has half his normal lung capacity.
Today, two more recount their struggle, as part of a continuing effort to educate the community about the causes and effects of -- and limited treatments available for -- valley fever.
Karen Werts, 53, Bakersfield
My journey with valley fever began in August 2010. While at work at a local medical center, I felt heaviness in my chest and my right arm ached. My boss sent me to urgent care to make sure I was not having a heart attack. The EKG was normal, but a chest X-ray showed a slight shadow in my right lung. The physician said I probably had the start of bronchitis, and prescribed antibiotics. The heavy feeling in my chest never went away and my legs began to swell.
One month later, I awoke in the middle of the night with chills. Later that night, I woke up again, soaking wet. I figured I was coming down with the flu, so I stayed home from work that day.
The next night, I had the same symptoms again, only this time I could not breathe in without a sharp pain on my right side. I went to the ER.
Based on an X-ray, I was told I had pneumonia in my right lung. I was hooked up to an IV, and when it was done I was sent home with more antibiotics. I was not tested for valley fever. The next morning, I had a new symptom: I was covered in welts.
I went back to the ER. I was very disturbed because the ER physician came into my exam room, stated that the radiologist saw a mass on my X-ray from the day before, and wanted to do a CT scan. So down to CT I went. When the results came back, the diagnosis was that I still had pneumonia, and nothing else, and that I had an allergic reaction to the antibiotic.
At this point, still NO ONE had done a valley fever test, and new symptoms were starting to appear. Painful, angry, red bumps the size of quarters began appearing on my legs and torso, and my feet and legs were swelling uncomfortably. I had unbelievable fatigue, and it was painful to breathe.
I went to my primary care physician for a follow-up, and she asked if anyone had done a valley fever test. She did one! I was diagnosed with valley fever on Oct. 28, 2010, two months after my symptoms began. I know I was luckier than most. My valley fever remained very active for 17 months.
The valley fever symptoms were bad, and I also had two bouts of pneumonia and the night chills and sweats continued. But I was placed on the highest dosage allowed of Diflucan, and I would compare the side effects of this anti-fungal medication to chemotherapy. I lost my eyelashes, eyebrows and most of my hair, and had sores in my nose and mouth. I had severely cracked and bleeding lips, and joint pain that made moving unpleasant. I was so fatigued that even getting up to use the bathroom was a huge effort. I also had to undergo constant blood tests to check my liver function, due to the Diflucan.
My valley fever finally went inactive in January 2012. But I always have this nagging fear in the back of my mind that it will resurface. I scrutinize every spot on my legs, and when I feel really fatigued, I pray that it isn't starting up again. I have hip joint damage from the disease and the medication. If the disease reactivates, I fear the medication won't be effective this time.
I have lost two years of my life to valley fever and now live with these constant fears in the back of my mind. I would not wish this for anyone, even my worst enemy.
David Losa, Bakersfield, 68
After living in Bakersfield for 17 years and not catching valley fever, I thought I might be immune. Being aware that the disease was endemic in my hometown, I read everything about it that I could get my hands on.
In February 2011, I went to Hawaii for two weeks to relieve my sister in caring for our aging mother. The week before my departure, I felt like I was coming down with the flu. The symptoms were pretty mild so I went on the trip anyway, thinking I would feel better when I got there.
I started coughing when I arrived, and started taking over-the-counter medications. Then I started to have a low-grade fever, typically around noon. I took the medications for more than a week, but none helped.
Thinking of everything I had read about valley fever, I suspected I had it and told my other sister. As a military retiree, she offered to take me to Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu. I told her my stay in Hawaii was almost up. Since valley fever was unknown in Hawaii, if in fact I had it, I would be back home in Bakersfield by the time the doctors figured it out and determined the proper treatment. So I decided to wait until I was back home.
On the first opportunity I had, I went to Sendas Northwest Urgent Care in Bakersfield. After a few diagnostic tests, I was told I either had tuberculosis or valley fever. I was given more tests, which confirmed I had valley fever, and I was referred to a pulmonologist who conducted his own test to confirm the earlier diagnosis. I was placed on a fluconazole regimen for several months, and attended monthly follow- up appointments.
I am fully recovered now, except that I get tired more easily than before my illness. I was lucky I caught the nonaggressive type of the disease.
The Reporting on Health Collaborative involves The Californian, the Merced Sun-Star, Radio Bilingue in Fresno, The Record in Stockton, Valley Public Radio in Fresno and Bakersfield, Vida en el Valle in Fresno, the Voice of OC in Santa Ana and ReportingonHealth.org. It's an initiative of The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.