Blastomycosis: Gwen Young’s life ended early due to undiagnosed blasto

EDITOR’S NOTE: While blastomycosis is not a new health hazard on Manitoulin Island, it is rare enough here that its symptoms are not easily recognized by the general population. This health feature series, prompted by a recent tragic fatality linked to the condition, will examine aspects of the disease, how best to avoid contracting blastomycosis and some of the possible symptoms people can exhibit. It will talk to the medical and scientific community, survivors of the disease and the family of the individual fatally infected with blastomycosis.

MANITOULIN—On January 3 of this year, the life of a bright, shining light—a hard working individual whose first impulse, her family says, was to always give of herself for others—was extinguished: the result of the devastating effects of blastomycosis.

Gwen Young of Sheguiandah was only 47 when she passed away at the start of the New Year at Health Sciences North in Sudbury, eight months after the ordinarily energetic mother of two became lethargic and developed a hacking cough that would not go away, the start of her symptoms.

The Expositor sat down with Ms. Young’s sister, Lois Keller of Mindemoya, and close friend Lisa Moore of Little Current to learn more about Ms. Young’s story. The pair were glad to pass on her story in the hopes it may help to save another’s life.

They explained that Ms. Young first noticed a change in her health in May of 2014. This had included dizzy spells and lethargy. Ms. Keller said the family first chalked it up to her being worn down from working two jobs while simultaneously completing her honours Bachelors of Arts degree in Indigenous Social Work at Laurentian University. (Ms. Young received her degree in the summer.)

By August, Ms. Young was coughing “a lot” and having problems breathing, Ms. Moore explained. By the end of the month, she was coughing up blood.

Gwen Young of Sheguiandah passed away on January 3 of this year, the result of  blastomycosis.
Gwen Young of Sheguiandah passed away on January 3 of this year, the result of
blastomycosis.

A smoker, Ms. Young decided to quit smoking, believing that to be a factor in her nagging cough. By September, with the cough still persistent, she checked herself into the emergency department of the Manitoulin Health Centre where she was diagnosed with pneumonia, given a course of antibiotics and told to go home and rest. Always on the go, Ms. Moore explained that her friend took only one day off. When the first round of antibiotics did not work, Ms. Young went back to the hospital where she received a second prescription. Once again, this new course of medication did nothing to ease her symptoms.

By September the coughs were joined with pressure headaches that, at times, were incapacitating for the usually-energetic woman.

Throughout this time, Ms. Young continued to work but on November 24 the headaches became too much and she told her friends and family she could not go on with such pain and brought herself to the Mindemoya hospital. On the trip home from the hospital, Ms. Moore said her friend had to pull over three times between Mindemoya and Sheguiandah to vomit as the pain was so intense. Calling Ms. Moore for help, she rushed to Sheguiandah where she drove Ms. Young to the emergency room in Little Current. Following an injection of Gravol and Toradol (a standard treatment for migraine sufferers) Ms. Young was sent home. For a week, Ms. Young was in and out of the emergency departments of both Little Current and Mindemoya sites of the Manitoulin Health Centre (by the second day she could not walk unsupported) before she got an appointment with her family doctor in Mindemoya. Ms. Keller and Ms. Moore told The Expositor that the diagnosis of the chronic headaches until that point had been “a tension headache with migraine characteristics.”

Ms. Keller had her sister move in with her at this point as she now needed almost around the clock care and she was soon admitted to the Mindemoya hospital and a CT scan booked for Health Sciences North in Sudbury and, a few days later, an MRI.

“Nothing would help (with the pain),” Ms. Keller shared, “which was hard to watch.”

The CT scan revealed three nodules on her brain and the condition was ruled to be sarcoidosis (inflammation) on the brain. From here they ruled out tuberculosis, multiple sclerosis, cancer and listeria. She was also on a cocktail of antibiotics, but nothing appeared to be working.

After nine days in Mindemoya, a bed opened up for Ms. Young in Sudbury and she was sent to Health Sciences North where a neurologist had agreed to take her on as a patient.

“She was so sick, weak, but she wasn’t negative at all,” Ms. Moore said proudly of her friend. “When they told her she had sarcoidosis she said ‘good, at least we know what it is now’.”

Ms. Young faced a battery of tests day after day, but nothing was coming up conclusive. When doctors started to narrow it down, a new symptom would appear that would cross one diagnosis off the list. Nurses looking after her sister told Ms. Keller it was “rare and peculiar,” but beyond that they did not know the cause of the inflammation to the brain. The patient began to have episodes of numbness and the feeling of an ‘out of body experience.’ In hindsight, the family believes Ms. Young was having mini strokes.

After one week in Sudbury, on December 23, Ms. Keller said she noticed a change in her sister, who until then had showed no signs of confusion. This was pointed out to the nurses on staff, who promised to have a doctor check in on her. When the doctor arrived he asked Ms. Young the year. “1981,” she responded.

After back-to-back CT scans that day, Ms. Young was booked in for emergency surgery where doctors placed a drain from her brain (to lessen the pressure from built-up fluids from the swelling), internally to her stomach.

Soon after Christmas it was determined a second drain would be needed (this time to drain externally) and an MRI was booked. As Ms. Young had become increasingly aggressive and restless since the first surgery, the decision was made to give her a mild sedative before the MRI diagnostic procedure. Ms. Young never woke up following the sedation, entering a coma.

Doctors told the family that the three nodules on her brain had shrunk, but there were now more of them. The scan also revealed that she had suffered two massive strokes. After a request from the family to test Ms. Young for blastomycosis, prompted by concerned members of the Island community who had made the suggestion, the decision was made to treat her for the fungal infection beginning on New Year’s Eve day. Ms. Young passed away three days later on January 3, just after family received news that Ms. Young was indeed suffering from blastomycosis.

Ms. Keller said she has been following The Expositor’s series on blastomycosis as well as reading extensively on the subject since her sister’s passing and felt it was important to share Ms. Young’s story as her blastomycosis symptoms were not the norm.

“Someone told me that if somebody like that is taken, it’s because all her jobs in life were accomplished,” Ms. Keller shared, adding that she would have counted this as a job to do, to share her story.

Ms. Young had been a supervisor at Manitoulin Community Living, a counsellor at Haven House, a volunteer with Manitoulin Special Olympics not to mention a busy personal life that included helping family and friends. The busy woman was also an avid gardener—a fact the family believes saw her contract blastomycosis.

“She didn’t look for recognition,” Ms. Keller said. “She was always doing something for others—Gwen touched so many peoples’ lives.”

“The one thing she would want to see happen is see this help others,” she added, referring to the health series that was itself prompted by Ms. Young’s struggles, difficult diagnosis and premature death.

In memory of Gwen Young, friends and family have decided to create a Manitoulin Secondary School Awards Night bursary in her name.

“We want to keep her memory alive,” her sister concluded.