- Jose Leon had worsening flu-like symptoms this spring, but tested negative for COVID.
- It took him about a month to be diagnosed with valley fever and by then he had lost 50 pounds.
- Valley fever is a potentially deadly fungal infection that spreads through dusty soil.
Jose and Carmen Leon thought they could finally breathe out.
The couple in Lemoore, California, had endured the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic with five children at home and survived Carmen’s three-week hospitalization with the virus in late 2021.
They had bought a house and were ready for their next prosperous chapter in their lives. Then, in March 2022, Leon fell ill.
“Finally when we feel like, okay, we’re getting better, we’re back on our feet, we can work and he was touched by this,” Carmen, a receptionist at an ophthalmology office, told Insider.
“This” was valley fever, a potentially deadly fungal infection that has been on the rise in recent years.
But Jose wasn’t diagnosed until about a month after his symptoms started. All the while his condition deteriorated and he is still recovering.
“It would have been much better,” he told Insider, “if I had been diagnosed earlier.”
Leon got so tired he couldn’t take care of his baby
Leon, a 40-year-old machine operator in a cheese factory, weighed about 200 pounds and exercised almost every day. But last spring, he started getting out of breath at the gym and found himself so fatigued that he went jogging at work to stay awake.
At home he should lie down. “And I hate to lie down,” said Jose, who worked at night and looked after the kids during the day.
A few weeks later, he developed a cough and body aches, then fever and night sweats. But he had been double vaccinated against COVID and the tests remained negative.
At one point, Jose felt so sick that he called his eldest high school daughter home to babysit her 1-year-old sister. “That was one of the signs for me,” said Carmen, who was working at the time. “I was like, ‘Something is really wrong’ because he’s never been unable to ‘take care of the baby.
At a local clinic, the doctor told Jose she suspected valley fever, but Jose’s GP did not take her recommendation to test Jose for it. Instead, the doctor took X-rays of the chest, which looked so damaged that Jose was ordered to go straight to the emergency room.
But even there, clinicians thought it was a bad case of COVID. Carmen said they sent him home with meds, including steroids for a week, but Jose didn’t get better.
“He didn’t want to get out of bed, he didn’t want to eat,” said Carmen. So she took him back to the emergency room, where he was eventually diagnosed with valley fever. The infectious disease doctor increased the urgency of his case from a 7 (not so bad) to a 1 (very bad), Carmen said.
“At this point, his lungs were full of white. It was complete pneumonia, down to his throat,” Carmen said.
As someone who grew up in the Valley and was told he had some immunity to the infection, Jose couldn’t believe his diagnosis. “I was in shock,” he said. By this time, he said, he had lost about 50 pounds.
Jose can use antifungal pills for life
Jose was treated with amphotericin B, a strong IV antifungal drug. He stayed in hospital until the end of July to receive injections, because his insurance did not cover them in outpatient care.
During the summer months, Carmen cut back on part-time work, alternating between home with the kids and the hospital with Jose. “It was very difficult,” she said. “Sometimes money didn’t come in.” Carmen’s sister started a GoFundMe account to help with medical expenses.
Jose also missed his eldest’s graduation and his youngest’s first words. “He was out of the house for four months, which is not normal for us,” said Carmen. “I know it sounds sweet, but we’re always with our kids, we’re always together.”
Now Jose is home, but far from back to normal. He takes a daily oral antifungal medication that he may use for the rest of his life, and won’t be able to return to work until 2023 at the earliest. “I feel much better,” he said, but that’s relative: Now, Jose said, “it feels like waking up every day with the flu.” He is also constantly constipated and has an altered sense of smell and taste.
When Carmen asked the doctor if there was anything else the family could do to support Jose’s recovery, she said, “Move from California.” “That’s not an option for us,” said Carmen.
Most people who inhale the fungus that causes valley fever do not get sick
Valley fever, or Coccidioidomycosis, is an infection caused by inhaling spores of the Coccidioides fungus, which is found in soil.
Not everyone who inhales the spores gets sick, but about 40% of those who do develop flu-like symptoms, Insider’s Gabby Landsverk previously reported. About 1 in 10 patients may experience serious side effects, such as permanent lung damage. Rarely, people with valley fever die if the infection spreads to places such as the skin, joints, or spinal cord.
It’s not contagious, but the spores are increasingly being found in unexpected areas, such as Washington and Oregon, likely as a result of climate change.
Jose said he wants people to be aware of valley fever as a possible cause of flu-like symptoms. “People need to know it’s there and test it,” he said. “Make sure you catch it early because the fungus will grow.”