How Mystery Disease Hit Three Teachers
By Chris Bowman
Truckee – Irene Baker, 43, said she spent most of the summer in bed.
Karen Cosgriff, 46, said she sometimes felt so weak she could not walk across the room.
Gerald Kennedy, 46, said all he could do for three months was watch television and read – “It got really boring.”
Kennedy, Cosgriff and Baker – all Truckee schoolteachers – were among the first of dozens of middle-aged residents in the Truckee-north Lake Tahoe communities to report the fatiguing illness that has stumped local doctors and national disease researchers.
“A few teachers came into our office last spring, then the next thing you know, it was like popping up everywhere.” said Paul R Cheney, an Incline Village doctor whose clinic has been treating most of the mysterious mononucleosis-style cases.
Cheney and his partner, Daniel L. Peterson, said they have treated 150 patients from Truckee and north Lake Tahoe with similar symptoms, prolonged fatigue, swollen neck glands, sore throats, headaches and enlargement of the liver and spleen.
But Cheney said he believes the illness has run its course. He has not seen new cases for the past month.
The Truckee teachers and other residents who were bedridden for months are beginning to return to work..
Cheney said he and Peterson first thought they had an “epidemic” of mononucleosis when the ailment surfaced among the Truckee teachers.
Baker is an eighth-grade teacher at Tahoe Truckee High School. She said she shared a class preparation period with the spouse of Kennedy and Cosgriff and two other teachers at the school, and they all came down with similar symptoms at almost the same time last spring.
Karen Cosgriff, who teaches at Truckee Elementary school, said she came down with the ailment after her husband, Michael, and English teacher at the high school, caught it.
He was in the same faculty meetings as Baker.
Kennedy’s wife, Janice, also was in the teachers’ group.
Word spread quickly in the small mountain communities that Cheney and Peterson were using a new testing procedure that could detect mononucleosis.
The test, called th Epstein-Barr virus serology panel — measures antibodies in the blood associated with mononucleosis.
The test indicated that almost 60 of the 150 patients who complained of fatigue had mononucleosis, Cheney said.
Mononucleosis, commonly called the kissing disease, usually strikes teenagers and young adults in their 20’s from contact with saliva. It’s supposed to be the curse of high school students, and not their teachers.
“We couldn’t understand how you could transfer mononucleosis in a teachers lounge.” Cheney said.
“We weren’t having an orgy in there.” Baker joked.
Another troubling factor, Cheney said, is that, statistically, 90 percent of all adults have had mononuclesosis — in varying degrees of severity — in their youth and should be immune to the disease as they are to chicken pox and other childhood illnesses.
The average age of the Tahoe area patients was 40.
“Then we thought, hey, maybe we’re not dealing with mono.” Cheney said. “That’s when we called the CDC.”
At first, researchers from the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta declined to investigate, Cheney said.
Gary Holmes, a CDC epidemiologist, said his office often receives reports of mononucleosis and they almost never check out.
But after examining the patiengs blood samples and medical histories the Incline doctors sent to Atlanta, Holmes and his boss, Jon Dalton, came to Lake Tahoe to investigate.
After 3 1/2 weeks of interviewing patients and examining their records, Holmes retured to Atlanta still unclear as to what kind of illness struck the Sierra communities.
Holmes said Thurdsay he did not believe there was an outbreak of mononucleosis. He said the blood test used by the Incline Village doctors was a relatively new procedure that had not been proven reliable.
Nonetheless Holmes collected blood and saliva samples from patients with the most severe cases to determine if mononuclesos was the culprit. Using these samples, Holmes said, he will attempt to grow the virus. The procedure is laborious and will probably take three months to complete. he said
Cheney said he and the Atlanta researchers hypothesize that mononucleosis may have been transmitted by another, unknown virus that is more contagious than mononucleosis.
This activator virus, he speculated, may manage to bypass the body’s immunity system and reactivate a chronic form of mononucleosis that lasted many months longer than the adolescent version of the disease.
Cheney said many of his patients suffered fatigue for up to 10 weeks.
Kennedy, an auto mechanics instructor at Truckee high school, said the perpetual rundown kept him from teaching school this past summer and fall.
“All you can do is stay at home in bed and watch TV and read.” Kennedy said.
“It gets really boring, and you kind of wonder who you caught it from all the time.”