Man survives fungal lung infection

When Jose Leon suddenly started experiencing flu-like symptoms in March, he suspected COVID-19.

He was easily discouraged at the gym and developed a cough that “went a little crazy.” He began to have a fever and cold sweats, and lost his appetite. It was the worst he had ever felt in his life, he recalled.

“I couldn’t stop being tired, really tired,” said Leon, 40, who lives in Lemoore, Calif., with his wife, Carmen, and five children. “It was just getting worse week by week.”

“I’ve never seen him so frail,” said his wife of 39 years. “He didn’t want to walk, he didn’t want to get out of bed. He lost weight really fast… it was really scary.”

José León’s illness remained a mystery for weeks, but it weakened his body to the point where he had to go to the emergency room twice. Courtesy of the Leon family

What is valley fever?

But when Leon was tested for COVID-19, the result was negative every time. His primary care physician had few answers, although Leon’s condition deteriorated to the point that Carmen had to take him to the emergency room twice.

The couple didn’t know it at the time, but it wasn’t a virus that caused the health crisis. The culprit was a tiny fungus that lives in the soil of the southwestern United States and has also recently been found in south-central Washington state, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned.

When people breathe in dust containing the fungus, it can infect the lungs and cause a disease known as valley fever or coccidioidomycosis.

In California, the number of reported cases of valley fever has “increased greatly” in recent years, tripling between 2014 and 2018, according to the California Department of Public Health.

Symptoms, which include fatigue, cough, fever, shortness of breath and night sweats, can last for months. They go away without treatment for many people, but up to 10 percent of valley fever patients develop serious or long-term lung problems, the CDC noted.

He needs strong antifungal medication

That’s what happened to Leon, who was finally tested for the disease in April when he went to the emergency room for the second time. By the time the test came back positive and doctors finally had a diagnosis, the fungus had already spread to her lungs, the couple said.

José León in the hospital with valley fever
Leon spent four months in the hospital.Courtesy of the Leon family

Leon had to receive amphotericin B, a strong antifungal drug given intravenously to treat potentially fatal fungal infections.

He had to stay in the hospital until the end of July because his insurance did not cover amphotericin B injections at an outpatient infusion center. Leon continued to need the medication, so the only way he could get it was as an inpatient at the hospital, Carmen Leon said.

José León with his family
Leon was in the hospital when his oldest daughter graduated from high school. From left to right, he is surrounded by his children Hailey, Izaiah, Anthony and Adalie, and his wife, Carmen, who is holding baby Jade.Courtesy of the Leon family

Leon was finally well enough to be weaned off amphotericin B and was “super happy” to go home this month. But he has to take another antifungal drug, four pills a day, maybe for years or possibly the rest of his life, his wife said. The drug is strong enough to fight the fungus, but it also has strong side effects, such as nausea and loss of appetite.

“This completely changed our lives”

Leon is now considered immune compromised, so he can’t be around large groups of people, his wife noted.

The family has been shaken by the amount of valley fever that has changed their active and comfortable life.

“You can never understand exactly how horrible it is until you experience it firsthand or see someone go through it,” he noted.

Leon continues to battle a violent cough and cannot return to work as a machine operator in a plant until next year. Carmen Leon has been working part-time to try to keep the household afloat. The couple, who have five children aged 1 to 17 and bought a new house two years ago, have turned to crowdfunding for financial help.

“This completely changed our lives,” Leon said. “We were happy, we were blessed, which we still are because we get a lot of help, a lot of support and I’m alive, I’m here. But it’s very stressful because it takes two. We’re partners, we’re a couple and now to see my wife doing the most of these things when I’m supposed to provide, it’s difficult.”

José León in the hospital with valley fever
Leon was finally able to return home this month.Courtesy of the Leon family

How to protect yourself from valley fever

The couple urges residents of affected states, including California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, or people visiting those parts of the United States to be aware of valley fever and get tested if symptoms appear.

Anyone who lives, works or travels in an area where the valley fever fungus grows can breathe in spores from outdoor dust and become infected, the California Department of Public Health warned.

The agency advised staying indoors on windy days and keeping car windows closed while driving through areas where valley fever is common. Avoid yard work, digging or other activities that involve close contact with dirt, she noted. If you can’t avoid dusty places like construction sites, wearing an N95 mask can help protect you from spores.

Leon, who doesn’t know where or how he was exposed to the fungus, said he was surprised how few people knew about valley fever where he lives, even though central California is a hot spot for the disease.

“We want more people to know about this and protect themselves,” he said.

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