Ill students’ symptoms perplexing

A second junior high girl has come down with symptoms similar to those faced by Sadie Riggs, but doctors are diagnosing it as a different illness while School District 55 officials.

Linn County Health Department and Oregon Health Department have been keeping an eye on things because of the similarities.

Sadie was admitted to Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland in April after complaining of head and stomach aches, twitching and seizures.

“Makayla (Galster) started coming down with the severe part of her symptoms in the beginning of April,” said her mother Debby Galster. She started having migraines, localized in the same region of her head as Riggs, at the end of April.

Both are 13 years old.

Doctors first thought Makayla had an auto-immune disorder, but the test came back negative, Galster said. A few days after that test result, the left side of her body started twitching, starting with the left side of her face.

“You would think she would be having a seizure,” Galster said.

Because of the migraines and twitching and the similarity to Sadie’s symptoms, doctors performed an MRI and EEG on Makayla, but unlike Sadie, they showed she wasn’t having seizures or any brain problems.

“They are thinking she might have a conversion disorder,” Galster said. “As far as the cause of it, we aren’t sure yet.”

Normally, a traumatic event triggers conversion disorders, Galster said, but Makayla hasn’t had any. Conversion disorder is a condition in which patients may have neurological symptoms such as numbness, paralysis, or fits.

It is possible for toxins to trigger it, and doctors are still looking at that possibility, she said. That possibility is complicated by the fact that Sadie was improving before relapsing in May, which would require an unlikely new exposure to a toxin, presuming that was the cause.

Despite different diagnoses, hospital workers are as perplexed by the similarity of symptoms as the girls’ mothers.

“They definitely are acknowledging how odd, weird €“ words that actually came out of (a doctor’s) mouth €“ how similar these cases are,” Galster said.

Makayla will need to continue treatment at Doernbecher for an extended period, Galster said. There is no magic pill to cure her illness. She does not know whether she will have to stay at the hospital or visit regularly at this point.

Doctors are awaiting a biopsy to con-firm a possible diagnosis of a metaboloic disease, for Sadie, said her mother, Debbie Riggs. They won’t commit to the diagnosis yet, but it’s the best bet thus far.

The condition could be a problem from birth or it could have an environmental cause, Riggs said.

Sadie’s condition is not good at this point, Riggs said.

Riggs and Galster are concerned that there might have been an environmental cause and that some children may have been exposed and are suffering similar symptoms, including long-term stomach aches followed by headaches and then the twitching. Sadie’s stomach aches, not a nauseous pain but more of a stabbing pain, started in October.

“Sadie did it for six months,” Riggs said. “You could have other parents out there doing the same thing (thinking it’s just the flu or something more ordinary).”

Sadie and Makayla are friends and hang out at school, Riggs said, but not so much outside of school.

The only commonality they have is school, she said.

District 55 Supt. Larry Horton said district officials have been communicating with Linn County Health Department, which has been in contact with the Oregon health department about the situation,

“We want to know €“ is there some commonality or not?” Horton said. “It’s my understanding they haven’t been able to find anything that would tie them together €“ one or two symptoms, but apparently nothing they could say is the issue.

“There’s been a lot of phone calls with concerned people and rightly so.”

The district hasn’t had any more mysterious cases like these, he said. One high school student came down with viral meningitis recently, and a parent was asking whether fever and blisters were among the symptoms they should be concerned about.

“As far as we know, there is no connection,” Horton said. “We don’t want people to panic, but we want people to have the best information we have.”

That’s why the district, parents and health departments are staying in regular contact with each other, and the district sent a letter home to parents Thursday.

The letter advised parents that the district is aware of the two students suffering health issues.

“We are working to determine whether there are similarities in their medical situations that may in any way present a risk to other students,” Horton said in the letter. “Consultation between the state Public Health Division and Linn County Health Officer have ruled out communicable disease (transmission from person to person) and chemical-based origins.”

An e-mail from state Environmental Health Specialist Kenneth W. Kauffman, forwarded to Horton by Frank Moore, head of Linn County Health Department, indicated that the only lab where the girls could have been exposed to chemicals of any nature was a DNA experiment in late February, according to the science teachers.

It involved each student rinsing his or her mouth with distilled water; saving the rinse; and adding sodium chloride, sodium lauryl sulfate (a common soap) and ethanol to remove cell walls from the dead cheek cells.

Students then observed the mass of remaining cells and looked at it under microscopes.

“None of the additives in this experiment are truly dangerous to handle or inhale vapor from,” Kauffman’s e-mail said. “The lab instruction calls the lauryl sulfate mildly toxic and the ethanol very toxic. If one ingested large amounts of the soap reagent or the ethanol, it would have had predictable gastro effects, and enough alcohol could have caused weird behaviors. No part of the legitimate lab activities could have involved significant exposure or harm.”

Horton promised parents in his letter that “we will continue to pursue these cases aggressively and will advise you if there are any pertinent findings. Should any link be determined that demonstrates any type of risk to others, you will be advised immediately.”

Within the bounds of patient privacy laws, anyone seeking information or who may have medical concerns may contact district nurse Jane Bubak at (541) 367-7132, Sweet Home Junior High Principal Hal Huschka at (541) 367-7187 or Horton at (541) 367-7126.