In Her Own Words

FHN Infectious Disease Specialist Spots Uncommon Illness

It never crossed her mind that she might have blastomycosis. She had never even heard of it! But when Michele Davis got sicker and sicker in April, she and her family were very grateful that FHN Infectious Disease Specialist Robert Geller, MD, MS, FACP, FIDSA, connected the dots, ran the tests, and made the diagnosis.

Blastomycosis is rare and can be fatal. It is a fungal infection that initially causes lung problems, but can spread to other parts of the body. It is usually acquired by breathing in the spores of the fungi Blastomyces dermatitidis or Blastomyces gilchristii. These fungi are found in moist soils, particularly in wooded areas and along waterways. According to the American Thoracic Society, blastomycosis case numbers have increased in North America in the past 10 years.

Symptoms Similar to COVID-19

Michele started feeling ill in April, and thought at first her asthma was acting up. A couple weeks later, she started to cough, feel lightheaded, and suffer from body aches. Her family feared she might have COVID-19 even though she had been fully vaccinated. A drive-through test said otherwise.

Since Michele’s provider had recently retired, she had yet to find a new primary care provider and didn’t feel like she had a healthcare “home.” After getting a call about rescheduling a mammogram that was cancelled during the pandemic, Michele explained her illness to Breast Care Nurse Navigator Jess Harweger, BSN, RN, who quickly booked an appointment for her at FHN’s Acute Respiratory Clinic.

“She was an angel,” says Michele’s daughter, Kelley Davis Haubach. “She got Mom in that same afternoon and it was just in time. They took several tests and x-rays, and called that same evening to tell us that mom should promptly get to the ER. She was pretty sick – struggling to breathe and very weak. She could barely walk and was starting to get confused.”

Testing Regimen Plays Important Role

The family quickly transported Michele to FHN Memorial Hospital in Freeport. “FHN’s ER staff was very attentive,” Kelley explains. “They ran another COVID test just to be sure it wasn’t the coronavirus, along with several other tests. I was so thankful for the nurse practitioner, Sarah Marsh*. She gave me regular updates and clearly communicated when I could expect to get more information. Her follow up was extremely helpful and very much appreciated.”

Michele’s test results showed several irregularities. Heart problems, pneumonia, and hypoxia were potential diagnoses. However, Dr. Geller also was quick to request the blastomycosis test, which takes several days to process, thinking that perhaps this unusual fungus could be the cause of Michele’s problems. Her medical team also diagnosed her with shingles, another complicating factor. Very ill and in need of constant care, she was admitted to the hospital and started receiving breathing treatments and broad-spectrum antibiotics.

The Shocking Diagnosis

When the blastomycosis test came back positive, Dr. Geller discussed the surprising news with both Kelley and her mom. “He called to let us know what it was and got Mom promptly started on itraconazole, an anti-fungal medication. I researched online and joined a Facebook group, and saw that this disease can scar patients’ lungs and compromise quality of life if not caught quickly, so I was thankful that he tested her right away and we got a fast diagnosis. Most people can breathe in the fungi spores and tolerate them just fine, but Mom was not so lucky. We have no idea when or how she got infected.”

Happily, Michele is recovering well, though it could take up to a year on the medication for her to be completely cured. “I feel good now … much more like myself,” she says.

Kelley agrees. “Mom is doing so much better and enjoying her summer with friends and family. We are grateful to FHN for her care. The nurses on 3 East were wonderful, the ER staff was professional and attentive, and Dr. Geller was just great – we are incredibly fortunate to have him at FHN. I have no doubt her life is improved due to his prompt actions.”