For many of us, the story of the fungal meningitis outbreak seems bizarre. It's a mystery disease for which even health experts couldn't pinpoint the cause, let alone a cure.
But for the family of Janet Russell, a personal connection only makes it worse.
As Russell rests in intensive care at St. Thomas Hospital, her family watches and wonders how a matter of weeks could change so much.
"Upset. Frustrated. Angry. Just pick your adjective," husband Robert Russell said.
Janet Russell received an epidural injection at an outpatient St. Thomas clinic on Aug. 30. A week later, a headache started. Now, a month later, doctors in intensive care watch her around the clock as her family tries to do the same.
"We're hanging in there, and we make sure someone's there," Robert Russell said. "We try to encourage her to get better and try to encourage her to eat, but right now it's not easy to do."
The Centers for Disease Control confirmed on Thursday there are now 35 cases nationally, and additional cases are still expected. All affected patients received steroid injections used mostly for back pain that have been traced back to a specialty pharmacy in Massachusetts, which has ceased operations.
"I would encourage anyone who has been treated with this medication to not take anything lightly," said daughter Teresa Russell.
The CDC echoed the same advice Thursday. It also announced progress with a potential cure but cautioned the affected patients could face months of treatment.
"This doesn't happen in America. I mean, it doesn't. But this is something that is real," said daughter Tracy Barreiro.
It seems at least one local family in the midst of struggle may not find relief for quite some time.
"We want our mother to get better, and it's very difficult to watch my mother lay there and suffer. The amount of pain that she has had to endure is unexplainably difficult. To watch my mother shake and grab her head in pain should not happen," Teresa Russell said.
Officials also said Thursday a fifth person, the third in Tennessee, has died from the rare form of meningitis.
People close to the most recent victim, Diana Reed, 56, of Brentwood, said she had been hospitalized with the illness and died Wednesday.
Reed was a key part of the Wayne Reed Christian Child Care Center, which she founded with her husband. The nonprofit targeted at-risk children, and on its website someone wrote of her:
"She prayed continuously for those children, their families, the staff and the greater community served by the center. She also was an avid reader who believed in promoting literacy among very young children. Her friends will miss her broad smile, hearty laugh and vibrant personality. Her death has saddened us all."
The state has not broken down the 25 Tennessee cases by the three clinics who received the tainted injection, but as of Thursday, St. Thomas Outpatient Neurosurgery had the most, and Specialty Surgery Center in Crossville had at least one case.
A third clinic, PCA Pain Care Center in Oak Ridge, does not appear to have any cases.
And, once again to be very clear, this form of fungal meningitis is not contagious. Only those patients who received the injection are at risk.
Copyright WSMV 2012 (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.
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