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Just One Breath: Valley fever robs daughter of mother at crucial time

Candice Steed remembers peering at her mother through a hospital room window in Bakersfield when she was just 8 years old .

Sharron Steed lay heavily sedated, a ventilator keeping her weakened body alive.

“They told us to say goodbye to my mom,” recalled Candice , now 20.

Sharron, a social worker, had contracted a severe form of valley fever. It ravaged her body with night sweats and fevers. A collapsed lung landed her in the hospital, and the symptoms only got worse.

Sharron did survive that time, but the fungus continued to spread. She broke out in rashes, tired easily, and returned to the hospital multiple times. Eventually, she had to stop working altogether, which put a financial strain on a single mother with three children.

“It was a shock,” Candice said. “She went from being really healthy to being in a wheelchair.”

The fungus had invaded her bones, making them brittle and prone to fracture. Candice remembers her mother with a blue cast on one leg and purple on the other. She drew on the casts with a marker to pass the time.

Years before, Sharron had undergone a gastric bypass surgery , something physicians say could have contributed to such a severe case of cocci . Existing health issues – from diabetes to pregnancy-- can often complicate the disease and further enable the cocci’s spread, clinicians say.

In Steed’s case, her gastric bypass might have led to reduced immunity, pre-disposing her to a severe cocci infection. It could also have interfered with the absorption of the oral anti-fungal medications, rendering them less effective to fight the fungus’ spread, said Dr. Navin Amin, a physician and cocci specialist at Kern Medical Center.

By the time Candice was in high school, she had become her mother’s full-time caregiver. Friends would no longer come by, worried they might catch a disease. With money tight, Candice and her mother moved into her grandmother’s one-bedroom apartment.

“I couldn’t go out with my friends,” Candice said. “I didn’t want to leave her alone.”

So she dropped out of high school, spending her teenage years giving her mother sponge baths and hoisting her into a hospital-style bed.

One day, Sharron started gasping for air. Candice was shaking as she called the ambulance. She can still see her mother’s face as she lay in an intensive care unit bed, tears leaking out of her eyes.

After so many trips in and out of the hospital, Candice was surprised when her mother didn’t make it. Sharron died at 47 years old in 2009.

“I was really lost,” Candice said. “She was my best friend.”

Candice has now received her GED, and is studying psychology at Bakersfield College. She is actively involved in the Bakersfield valley fever support group, and she tries to spread awareness of the illness. Candice sells reddish orange bracelets that say “Fight the Fever” for $1 to friends and at events around town such as the First Friday art walk.

So far, she’s sold about 300, the proceeds of which go toward the foundation, and its mission to find a vaccine.

One day, she hopes that enough people will rally around the cause to fund the development of a vaccine. Studies in mice show that a vaccine, in theory, could work in humans, but funding for a vaccine recently ran out.

Even now, three years after her mother’s death, the pain hasn’t gone away. Candice yearns for a mother to call when she needs advice.

“Most girls go to their moms for everything,” she said. “What do you do about a boyfriend? How do you get a stain out of a shirt?”

Sometimes, she goes to Morro Bay, a seaside town her mother loved when she was healthy. She’ll run down to the beach, find a quiet spot and scrawl the name “Sharron” in the sand.

Editor’s note: Valley fever wears many masks. This makes it hard for the people who suffer from the disease to recognize the symptoms. More importantly, the clinicians trying to diagnose them often mistake valley fever for bacterial infections, tuberculosis, even cancer. They prescribe the wrong drugs or perform the wrong procedures, allowing the disease to devastate a person’s body.

To help people understand the faces of valley fever, reporters with the Reporting on Health Collaborative are gathering stories about patients and their families. Today, Valley Public Radio unveils The Faces of Valley Fever, sharing some of those stories as part of our Just One Breath series on the disease. If you would like to tell us your story, write valleyfever@reportingonhealth.org or call 661 748-3142 to leave us a voice message.

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