Just months after thinking she was free of fungal meningitis, Joan Peay of Nashville, Tenn., has suffered a debilitating relapse.
(Photo: Samuel M. Simpkins, The Tennessean)
By Walter F. Roche Jr., The Tennessean
The first time was bad. The second is even worse.
Joan Peay, a 73-year-old Nashville fungal meningitis victim who fought back from grave illness toward a normal life, lies in a hospital bed suffering from a relapse a full year later.
Just a few months ago, doctors had told her she was free from the deadly disease and no longer needed to take powerful and debilitating antifungal medications.
They gave her "a clean bill of health," said her son, Trent Johnson of Franklin.
In an interview this summer, a hopeful Peay said her life was beginning to return to normal and she was even able to drive.
But in August, Johnson said, she began to experience persistent headaches.
At first doctors thought the cause was nasal scarring, and surgery was performed in September, but that didn't help and the headaches got even worse.
Pain pills were prescribed in hopes the pain would abate, but it didn't.
Johnson said his wife, Shelley, was the first to begin "really questioning" whether the problem was in fact a relapse of fungal meningitis.
And the headaches just got worse, Johnson said, reaching a crescendo on the last weekend of September.
"The pain was so bad she missed her grandson's birthday party," he said.
Eventually a spinal tap showed her white blood cell count was up to 8,000, compared with a normal count of 10 or under.
He said that doctors at first thought she might have bacterial meningitis, but tests for that contagious form of meningitis proved negative.
While Peay's first painful encounter with meningitis included several hospital stays, her son says the relapse has been even worse.
He said the antifungal medications are "like being on chemotherapy."
He said his mother on some visits appeared to be normal and lucid, but on other days "she was out in left field."
"She has slurred speech, trouble eating and can't walk on her own. She is in much worse condition now than she ever was," Johnson said.
Saint Thomas West Hospital officials have confirmed that a relapsed patient is under treatment but have declined to identify the patient because of patient confidentiality rules. They also have disclosed that all victims of the outbreak are being recontacted to detect any other possible relapses. Some have been asked to make a return visit.
Both Johnson and the family lawyer, Timothy Housholder of Knoxville, said that official confirmation that the current illness is a relapse of the old one has been delayed by the federal government shutdown.
"It's hard to imagine it's anything else," Housholder said.
Woody McMillin, spokesman for the state health department, said the agency was not aware of any other relapses. He said state health officials had planned to meet with officials of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the reported case, but the meeting was delayed by the federal government shutdown and will be rescheduled.
Peay, according to a pending lawsuit, was injected with a fungus-tainted spinal steroid on Sept. 7, 2012, at the Saint Thomas Outpatient Neurosurgical Center. She began to experience unusual pain and soreness at the injection site two weeks later, followed by severe headaches, nausea and vomiting.
She reported to the emergency room on Oct. 2, 2012, and began the first in a series of hospitalizations.
She was admitted for treatment of the relapse a year and a day later.