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Unbroken: A chronic fatigue syndrome patient’s long road to recovery

“Fatigue is what we experience, but it is what a match is to an atomic bomb,” said Laura Hillenbrand, the author of Unbroken, about how it feels to live with chronic fatigue syndrome.

I recently finished a Stanford Medicine story and video (above) about another CFS patient, "Erin," who asked that her real name not be used. After an acute illness in rural Mexico, Erin went from being an elite soccer player to one of the 17 million people worldwide who suffer from the condition.

Most people who acquire hit-and-run infections go back to their normal lives after a few days. But these patients don’t. They become virtual shut-ins, prisoners of a never-ending cycle of flu-like symptoms, many of them bedridden for years. CFS, also called myalgic encephalomyelitis or ME/CFS, has no known cause or cure, frustrating both patients and physicians.

What makes Erin’s CFS story somewhat rare is its happy ending. With the help of Stanford infectious disease expert José Montoya, MD, and cardiac electrophysiologist Karen Friday, MD, Erin is back to working fulltime and playing soccer.

"Dr. Montoya and doctors like him are heroes for taking up an unpopular disease and patients that most doctors shun," said Lori Chapo-Kroger, a registered nurse and CEO of the patient charity, PANDORA Org. "He combines his medical expertise and a creative approach with a truly caring heart for suffering patients."

Dr. Montoya is also collaborating with immunologist Mark Davis, PhD, on the Stanford Initiative on Infection-Associated Chronic Diseases, a research project using cutting-edge technologies to identify the biomarkers and root causes of ME/CFS. Working at the Human Immune Monitoring Center, team members are searching 600 blood samples for infectious microbes, inflammation-related molecules and genetic flaws. In addition, they’re conducting brain scans and physical exams to look for physical abnormalities among these patients.

Early results are promising — the team has discovered a number of measurable biological markers that indicate that ME/CFS patients may be suffering from out-of-control inflammation.

The team’s goal: To find out what is wrong with the immune systems of patients with infection-triggered diseases such ME/CFS and Lyme disease, then figure out how to help them get better.

Previously: Deciphering the puzzle of chronic fatigue syndrome

The HIMC is partially funded by Spectrum, Stanford's NIH Clinical and Translational Science Award.

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