BAKERSFIELD -- Candice Steed remembers peering at her mother through a hospital room window in Bakersfield when she was just 8 years old.
Sharron Steed lay heavily sedated, a ventilator keeping her weakened body alive. "They told us to say goodbye to my mom," recalled Candice, now 20.
Sharron, a social worker, had contracted a severe form of valley fever. It ravaged her body with night sweats and fever. A collapsed lung landed her in the hospital, but the symptoms only got worse.
Sharron survived that time, but the fungus continued to spread. It invaded her bones, making them brittle and prone to fracture.
By the time Candice was in high school, she had become her mother's full-time caregiver, so she dropped out.
One day, Sharron started gasping for air. Candice was shaking as she called the ambulance. She can still see her mother's face as she lay in an intensive care unit bed, tears running from her eyes.
After so many trips in and out of the hospital, Candice was surprised when her mother didn't make it. Sharron died at 47 in 2009.
"I was really lost," Candice said. "She was my best friend."
-- Kellie Schmitt
FRESNO -- After two harrowing experiences with valley fever, 29-year-old Irma Arrollo thought she had finally beat the fungal disease.
In 2007, when she was 23, the disease invaded her lungs and kidneys. She couldn't breathe and was throwing up constantly. She spent about three weeks in the hospital and missed one month of work at United Way of Tulare County.
Two years later, in 2009, the disease reappeared as a red rash across her legs. She was in the hospital for three more weeks and missed three more months of work.
Then, this spring, Arrollo, became very tired, her nails turned brittle, and she experienced heavy menstrual cycles. A visit to the doctor revealed that she did not have valley fever, but her first bout with the disease had compromised her kidneys.
Now, she has to undergo dialysis in the striped bedroom of her Fresno home four times a day for about 30 minutes each time. She will eventually go on the waiting list for a new kidney.
"It really changes your life," she said. "It is not just a cold; it is not just something that is going to go away. It is something that you will have. Once it hits your lungs, your lungs are scarred. Once it hits your kidneys, your kidneys are scarred."
-- Rebecca Plevin
PASO ROBLES -- Todd and Tammy Schaefer appear to be the picture of good fortune and good health.
Tall, fit and well-dressed, the couple met in Malibu, where they established their wine business. In 2001, they moved to Paso Robles in San Luis Obispo County and focused on Pacific Coast Vineyards full time.
That's where their long nightmare with valley fever began. Early in October 2003, Todd Schaefer was running a bulldozer that kicked up a thick cloud of dust. After multiple trips to the hospital in the following weeks doctors finally took a lung biopsy.
Todd was diagnosed with spinal fungal meningitis, meaning fungal spores had entered his lungs and then spread to his spinal fluid, causing swelling. He was put on antifungal medication more than a month after the initial infection.
In 2003, he received the terrible prognosis. He was told he would suffer brain damage within 10 to 15 years, due to the meningitis. He would be on antifungal medication for the rest of his life. Themany side effects prevented Todd from ever tasting his own wine again.
Valley fever diagnosis, the drugs and their side effects, coupled with other health complications, have made his condition hell, he said.
If anything good comes out of this ordeal, Tammy hopes it is that more light is cast on valley fever. "I just don't understand why they can't bring more attention to it. It's so strange," she said. "It is like a dirty little secret."
-- By Rebecca Plevin
BAKERSFIELD -- Dr. Sarwa Aldoori still remembers the night her husband deteriorated from valley fever complications.
It was two weeks before Easter last year, and the family was enjoying barbecued kabobs at home in Bakersfield. Her husband, Dr. Yakdan Al Qaisi, 58, said he didn't feel well and began violently vomiting in the living room.
Aldoori and her daughter rushed him to Bakersfield Memorial Hospital, where he stayed for two weeks, hovering close to death. The pneumonia he had contracted after a valley fever infection had turned his blood toxic, and his breathing deteriorated.
Doctors had to insert a tube down his throat to help him breathe.
Al Qaisi sent his blood to the Kern County Department of Public Health. It tested positive for valley fever. The illness had weakened his body, leading to him contracting pneumonia.
Al Qaisi wonders whether his battle with valley fever will ever end. He fears a relapse of the fungus his body will always harbor.
"I always say, 'Don't stress me,' he said. "It will flare up."
-- Kellie Schmitt