Just One Breath
11:34 am
Mon February 11, 2013

Valley Fever Stories: Jerry Walker

Jerry Walker of Bakersfield
Jerry Walker of Bakersfield
Credit Casey Christie / The Californian

Jerry Walker, Bakersfield, 59

My name is Jerry Walker and I am a valley fever survivor.

I was not born and raised here. In late 1991, I was working as a petroleum engineer for one of the largest oilfield service companies in the world. Around the second week of November, I was working on the west side of the valley and experienced a very windy day with blowing sand.

Two weeks later, I got up to go to work, but I felt very ill. I had great difficulty breathing, and I felt very weak. My wife agreed that I should go see a family physician, which we did that same day. He listened to my lungs and said I sounded congested and diagnosed me with a touch of pleurisy and released me to go back to work. I returned to work that same day, but my symptoms were getting much worse. I managed to drive home and struggled into the house. My wife determined we should head straight to the emergency room.

By time I reached the hospital, I could not breathe. I had a totally collapsed lung caused by fluid build-up. I was admitted to the hospital and a cardio-pulmonary specialist was called. He told me he suspected valley fever but blood tests had to be run to be sure. In the meantime, he needed to drain the fluid so my lung could re-inflate.

I was put on Diflucan, but it didn’t do anything for me because the disease was too far advanced. Doctors then tried Amphotericin B. It’s in a liquid form and dispensed through an IV. It’s very much like what a cancer patient would take for chemotherapy, and it makes you very sick. I had to have that intravenously every other day for seven months.

I was at San Joaquin Community Hospital, and my clinical care pulmonary specialist was really concerned because I kept filling up with blood in the pleural cavity, the sack that surrounds the lungs. When that happens, you can’t breathe. He had to figure out some way to stop this blood from building up, so he gave me a chest tube — basically, they cut a hole in your side while you’re awake, insert a tube into the pleural cavity and drain out the fluids. But the fluid kept coming, so they chemically sealed the pleura to the lung.

It was successful, but my lung capacity is not what it was. It’s similar to someone who has use of half of a lung.

I was in the hospital until August 1992, and went back to work in September. But my energy level has never returned. There are days when I just feel horrible. It’s not the breathing, so to speak, it’s just the energy level. You can think of it as a cancer survivor in remission. The cancer is still there, but in remission. It’s the same thing with valley fever: You never really get rid of it, it’s just dormant.

It’s frustrating that there is not more money for valley fever research, and no proven pill to prevent it. It’s just frustrating because you know more people are going to come down with it, and there are going to be more stories. I also believe that companies should educate their employees about valley fever, especially people that are being brought in from other states. They ought to be forewarned about it.

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Reporting on Health Collaborative asked readers to share their experiences with valley fever. Here are their stories, in their own words, as told to the Collaborative's Community Engagement Editor, Kellie Schmitt. Their accounts capture the pain and anguish suffered by local families as doctors struggled to find the right treatment and jobs and lives were lost to the disease. Misdiagnosis was a frequent problem, allowing time for the disease to "tunnel" its way into lungs and other organs, as one survivor put it. And, even when the correct treatment was administered, patients often suffered terrible side effects. These first-person stories are a poignant reminder of the need for better treatment protocols and improved diagnosis. They also highlight the costs to families, employers and the government of underinvestment in research to develop a vaccine. Do you have a valley fever story to share? Write valleyfever@reportingonhealth.org or call (661) 748-3142 to leave us a voice message.

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