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When Valley Fever Struck Celebrated Winemaker, Doctors Missed It

Todd and Tammy Schaefer appear the picture of good fortune and good health.

Tall, fit and well dressed, the couple met in Malibu, where they established their wine business. In 2001, they moved to Paso Robles, in San Luis Obispo County, and focused on Pacific Coast Vineyards full-time.

That’s where their long nightmare with valley fever began. Early in October 2003, Todd Schaefer was running a bulldozer that kicked up a thick cloud of dust.

A few days later, Todd became very sick. At Twin Cities Community Hospital in Templeton, near Paso Robles, a doctor performed an X-ray, saw scar tissue on his lung, and diagnosed him with pneumonia.

“They literally told me in the emergency room to send him home, get bed rest, and eat chicken noodle soup and cranberry juice, and it would go away,” Tammy Schaefer recalled.

Two weeks passed, and Todd’s condition worsened.

They returned to the hospital. Again, he was diagnosed with pneumonia, and told to go home to recover.

In late October, Todd was visiting his mother in Pacific Palisades when he collapsed. At St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, doctors feared Todd had tuberculosis and placed both him and Tammy in quarantine. The couple spent two weeks in the Intensive Care Unit, as doctors ran tests that always came back negative.

 “They had no idea how to treat him,” Tammy Schaefer said. “They were giving him a general antibiotic.”

Doctors finally took a lung biopsy, which was sent to the coccidioidomycosis serology lab at UC Davis. About a week later, they learned Todd had spinal fungal meningitis, meaning the spores had entered his lungs and then spread to his spinal fluid, causing swelling. They put him on antifungal medication more than a month after the initial infection.

Todd was released from the hospital a little before Thanksgiving 2003, but with a terrible prognosis. He was told he would suffer brain damage within 10 to 15 years, due to the meningitis. He would be on antifungal medication for the rest of his life, which would have many side effects, including preventing Todd from ever tasting his own wine again.

Todd and Tammy Schaefer were engaged, but after Todd was released from the hospital, he encouraged Tammy to reconsider marrying him.

“I told her, ‘you’re too young and too beautiful,’” he recalled. “‘I’ve got to set you free because I’ve got a bad road ahead of me and I don’t want to bring you down.’”

They were married Dec. 4, 2003, at the Beverly Hills courthouse.

But life has not gotten any easier since Todd’s valley fever diagnosis. Heavy antifungal drugs with harsh side effects, coupled with other health complications, have made his condition hell, he said.

Even if drugs were keeping him alive, they weren’t keeping him healthy. About nine years after he first started taking Diflucan, an anti-fungal drug, he suffered a small stroke. An infectious disease doctor at Stanford University said he had developed hydrocephalus, or water on the brain.

The disease has also been hard on their winery, Pacific Coast Vineyards.

Their 2007 Pinot Noir recently won the Best of Class and Judges’ Choice awards at a 2010 San Francisco Chronicle wine competition. But despite the accolades, the Schaefers have remained a boutique winery, producing just 2,500 cases annually.

“We have to stay small - I’m checking in, I’m checking out,” Todd Schaefer said.

In early August, Todd said he had worked just two full days in the past six months. Meanwhile, Tammy has been pulled away from the business, too, as she cares for her husband, takes him to medical appointments, and researches his disease.

During an August interview, Todd started to feel dizzy - something that has occurred more frequently, though he doesn’t know why.

“I just took a little spin there,” he said, followed by an exasperated sigh. “I need to get an exorcist. I am possessed. I hate it. I’m so sick of it. Get it out of me!”

If anything good comes out of this ordeal, Tammy hopes it is that more light is cast on valley fever. She would like the public to be more aware and wants doctors to do a better job of identifying it. She also urged local agencies to advise outdoor workers to take proper precautions against the disease.

“I just don’t understand why they can’t bring more attention to it, it’s so strange,” she said. “It is like a dirty little secret.”

Rebecca Plevin was a reporter for Valley Public Radio from 2013-2014. Before joining the station, she was the community health reporter for Vida en el Valle, the McClatchy Company's bilingual newspaper in California's San Joaquin Valley. She earned the George F. Gruner Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism and the McClatchy President's Award for her work at Vida, as well as honors from the National Association of Hispanic Publications and the California Newspaper Publishers Association. Plevin grew up in the Washington, D.C. area and is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is also a fluent Spanish speaker, a certified yoga teacher, and an avid rock-climber.
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