Woman’s Back Pain, Weight Loss Caused by Deadly Yeast Infection Valley Fever

  • Desiree Chan experienced back pain, cough, fatigue, night sweats and weight loss in late 2020.
  • Doctors tested the 33-year-old for many infectious diseases, such as pneumonia or tuberculosis.
  • After about a month, she was diagnosed with valley fever, a potentially fatal fungal infection.

When Desiree Chan got out of the bathtub on New Year’s Eve in 2020, a stabbing pain ripped through her neck and spine. She crawled into bed and stayed there for two days.

The following week, Chan, then 33, went to the doctor. She tested negative for COVID, so the doctor gave her painkillers for what he thought was regular back pain.

Six days later, Chan, who lives in Los Angeles, developed a mucous cough. This time, her doctor prescribed cough medication.

But Chan continued to be in pain and increasingly tired, so her doctor ordered an X-ray. The scan revealed infiltrates — or dense particles that could indicate disease — in Chan’s lungs. She was given medication for what her doctor now suspected was pneumonia.

Still, Chan said her cough was so “debilitating” that she struggled to talk to friends on the phone. And even when she kept quiet, “it felt like an elephant stepped on my chest,” she said. She lost weight quickly and developed such intense night sweats that she had to change her pajamas all night.

“I thought I was going to die,” said Chan, who runs a tour company. “I had no idea what was going on.”

Neither do doctors. It took countless tests, a handful of specialists and many weeks before Chan was diagnosed with valley fever, a potentially deadly fungal infection that has been on the rise in recent years. Chan and her fiancé, Lucas Marton, 34, spoke to Insider about the experience of raising awareness of the strange disease — and that recovery is possible.

Most people who inhale the fungus that causes valley fever do not get sick

Valley fever, or Coccidioidomycosis, is an infection caused by inhaling spores of the Coccidioides fungus, which is found in soil. It is named after California’s San Joaquin Valley, but is also found in Arizona, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, California, Texas, and Washington.

The infection has increased in unexpected places in recent years, likely due to climate change, Insider’s Gabby Landsverk previously reported.

Not everyone who inhales the spores gets sick, but about 40% of those who do get flu-like symptoms. About 1 in 10 patients may experience serious side effects, such as permanent lung damage. Rarely, people with valley fever die if the infection spreads to places such as the skin, joints, or spinal cord.

Chan said doctors don’t know why she was predisposed because she is young and otherwise healthy. Usually, people with weakened immune systems — such as those who are pregnant, elderly, or have a condition such as diabetes — are most at risk.

Still, Chan is lucky that her team stopped at nothing to find the cause of her symptoms. “I had doctors who knew what tests to do right away so it didn’t spread throughout my body,” she said. “I’m grateful for that.”

Doctors ran tests for all kinds of infectious diseases before concluding it was valley fever

Doctors largely came to the diagnosis of Chan through an elimination process.

Pneumonia was ruled out after Chan’s course of medication, but the infiltrates remained. The next suspected culprit was tuberculosis after a CAT scan revealed a mass in Chan’s lung.

“Pack a bag,” Chan-doctor said as she pointed her to the emergency room, “you’ll be there for a while.”

Desiree Chan raises a thumbs up from her hospital bed

Many of Desiree Chan’s tests were done in a tent outside the hospital to keep her separate from COVID-19 patients.

Desiree Chan

He was right. Over the course of about 10 days, Chan’s medical records show she was tested for a variety of infectious diseases, including HIV, Legionnaires’ Disease, COVID, tuberculosis, and the fungal infections histoplasmosis and aspergillosis. Everything came back negative.

At one point, Chan said the pulmonologist even wanted to take a lung biopsy to test for cancer.

Finally, an antibody test eventually came back positive for Coccidioides, the fungus that causes valley fever. Then the recovery started.

Chan moved in with her family, who made sure she got proper nutrition and rest, for a few months.

She spent most of 2021 on heavy doses of the antifungal fluconazole, which reduced her appetite, caused her hormones to shed and left her with severe brain fog that forced her to take a few months off. She had frequent checkups of her liver, which can damage fluconazole.

Even after stopping the medication in November 2021, Chan said it took about 6 months for the effects to leave her system.

“It wasn’t until mid-May of this year that I started to feel like I was regaining my strength and feeling clear-headed,” she said.

Desiree Chan and Lucas Marton on the beach

Desiree Chan and Lucas Marton in 2022.

Thanks to Desiree Chan

Around that point, Marton suggested. “You go through something like that, and it’s like, what can’t we get through? He said. “I wouldn’t have gone through something so grueling for someone I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life with. ”

Lack of awareness has made recovery more difficult

One of the most difficult aspects of the experience for Chan and Marton was not knowing if and when life would return to normal. “The answer to every question we had was, ‘We can’t answer that because every case is different,'” Chan said.

The lack of awareness of valley fever also exacerbated the pain.

“People didn’t really know what was going on because they didn’t really know what was going on,” said Marton, a nonprofit executive. “People asked her to do things she wasn’t ready for,” such as completing work tasks or going on a trip with friends.

“That made it so much worse because then the frustration did,” Marton added. “She felt really unseen and unheard of.”

That’s why the couple shares their story. “We wish we had seen more testimonials saying, ‘This is how long it’s going to take, this is how bad it’s going to get, is this going to be grueling for the rest of my life?'” Marton said. “For us, the answer is no. We seem to have been given a fairly normal lifestyle.”

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