No matter what was happening to me, I could always deal with it by running,” recounts Angela Tahiliani, a married mother of three who has been a long distance runner since she was in 7th grade. “Then, the Valley Fever hit.”
The 39-year-old Queen Creek resident has barely emerged from the battle for her life, which began three long years ago. Exacerbating the struggle was the inability of doctors to diagnose the disease.
“It took two full months, four E.R. trips, and just under 10 doctors before I was able to have a diagnosis,” she says. “I was never hospitalized for Valley Fever; I was hospitalized for ‘unknown.’ And, because they had no way of knowing how to treat me, they let me go.”
It’s one of the great health scandals in the history of the Southwest where Valley Fever haunts the very air we breathe. Tests for the fungal infection are unreliable. And, apparently, there’s no breakthrough on the horizon, though I’m told a new drug is being tested in Tucson. But still, if the disease isn’t diagnosed, what good is the drug?
How is it that every single Arizona doctor is not versed on the symptoms in light of inadequate test protocols? Why is it that the fungus Coccidioides, which grows in soil until it gets into the lungs of people (and animals), is allowed to linger and morph into catastrophic illnesses because docs are not on the lookout?
Yes, the symptoms are flu-like, disguising Valley Fever, but doctors should know if a patient is not recovering, over several weeks, to automatically suspect Valley Fever. This is a crippling disease; it can be deadly. Thousands are diagnosed yearly in Arizona, but many others never get confirmation or accurate treatment.
It has touched an amazing number of my own circle. I’ve suffered with it as have my husband and multiple friends over a series of decades. My adult daughter almost died of it. One close friend just lost her granddaughter to it — a beautiful, talented young woman. In every case, treatment was delayed due to negative test results.
Mesa mother Afton Zapata’s book “Enduring Miracles: Surviving the Effects of Valley Fever” recounts her husband’s brutal battle with the disease that consumed his body amidst countless attempts to get medical clarity. By the time of diagnosis, it had settled in his brain as fungal meningitis.
Pulmonologist Doctor M. Salim of Chandler successfully diagnosed (despite negative test results) and treated Tahiliani. He urges Arizona to do a better job of warning people about the illness and the dangers of exposure to dust. He wonders if economics and fear of frightening state visitors and new residents contribute to the vacuum of information.
Yes, public awareness is one thing, but vigilant doctors and emergency centers is another. It’s an outrage; a blight on the medical industry. Dr. Salim suggests it is doctors’ methodical training that prevents them from looking beyond the negative test results. He says, “Like a jigsaw puzzle,” doctors need to look at the whole picture.
Tahiliani most likely will never run again, not that she can’t, but she won’t. “Emotionally, I think I am winning,” she says. “But I will never be the same person. I will always think twice before allowing my sons to go on a scout camp-out. I will never live next to agriculture again. I will never dig in the dirt like I used to and I will never leave my house without a face mask in my purse.”
The problem is incomprehensible for those who love our Southwest, who love the outdoors. We can only plead for informed doctors and alert emergency centers, while we wait for refined diagnostic tests.
• East Valley resident Linda Turley-Hansen (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a syndicated columnist and former Phoenix veteran TV anchor.