Fungal Meningitis Patients: A Long Road to Recovery
Dec. 26, 2012 -- Johnnie McKee thought she was out of the woods.
McKee, a 72-year-old grandmother of four from Bethpage, Tenn., was one of nearly 14,000 people who found out this fall that they'd been exposed to tainted medications made by the now shuttered New England Compounding Center.
In her case, the threat came from a steroid shot that she'd had on Sept. 7 to relieve some nagging back pain.
"We got a letter. We were told that if we could make it 28 days, that we'd be clear," says Fred McKee, her husband of 51 years. "We watched it and worried about it," says Fred, his voice filling with emotion.
But Johnnie felt fine. She didn't have any of the symptoms they were told to look for -- headaches, nausea, fever.
The waiting period passed, and she felt good enough to get back to her yard, which she had always tended with great care. "She mowed the lawn," says Fred.
Then, on Oct. 8, the pain hit like a bolt of lightning at the base of her spine. "It was just excruciating pain," says Fred. Their surgeon told them to drive to the emergency room at St. Thomas Hospital in Nashville, where doctors had started to treat a wave of patients who were battling a rare type of fungal meningitis, an infection of the brain and spinal cord.
"There were three criteria they looked for to determine if you have fungal meningitis, and she met all three," Fred says.
Still, he says, they didn't worry. But that may have been because they didn't understand what was coming.
"I don't think we really realized that we were really getting into a two- to three-month hospitalization period and a six-month-to-a-year complete recovery," he says.
An Outbreak Without Precedent
Since the outbreak began, 620 people have been infected and 39 have died in 19 states. No one has been cured.
"As far as we know, no one has been taken off medicines, and we wouldn't recommend that now; it's still too early," says Tom M. Chiller, MD, MPH, deputy chief of the Mycotic Diseases Branch at the CDC in Atlanta.
Many hope they are on the road to recovery, but no one can tell them when it will end.
Experts say they've never seen these kind of fungal infections, much less this many cases.
"It's very difficult for the doctors and the patients because we can't say, 'Well, just two more weeks of this and it will be over.' What we're saying is that we're going to keep treating you. We're going to keep caring for you, and when the experts tell us we can stop, we're going to do that," says William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.