Mystery Illness


From the Fay Observer an excellent article.  We are reposting this article at VT to be sure all see one of the worse case examples of what happens when these veterans have Gulf War Illness and other undiagnoseable type conditions.  The veterans of the Gulf War 1990-91 need the best not the delay and denial that thousands have experienced!  The 20 year anniversary for a large portion of them is another of many days that is hard to deal with because their war after the war has not ended. 

Published: 04:58 AM, Mon Jan 17, 2011

Mystery illness upends lives of soldier, family

By Greg Barnes
Staff writer 

The disease began to present itself about two years ago.  A little memory loss, a slight hand twitch. Karin Harriss barely noticed the changes in her husband, Chris, a chief warrant officer 2 at Fort Bragg. 

Karin put a basket beside the door leading to the garage so Chris could easily remember where he placed his car keys. That was the only concession, way back when, to the disease that would soon steal her husband’s Army career and his ability to do tasks as simple as walk up stairs. 

After visits to about 20 different doctors, Chris still isn’t sure what is robbing him of his memory, his speech and his mobility.

 Karin said doctors initially told her he suffers from conversion disorder, a physical condition caused by a stressful event. Then came a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, followed by Lyme disease, and, in October, the scariest diagnosis of all – Fahr’s syndrome.

Fahr’s is a rare disorder characterized by abnormal calcium deposits in different regions of the brain that control movement. Symptoms of the disorder may include deterioration of motor function, dementia, seizures, headache, speech problems, stiff limbs, spastic paralysis and eye impairments. 

At age 35, Chris Harriss already suffers from many of those symptoms.  “It’s like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and ALS all at the same time,” his wife said. The prognosis is equally terrifying. There is no known cure or standard course of treatment for Fahr’s syndrome, a degenerative disease. 

But the Harrisses – and some of their doctors – refuse to give up hope, clinging to the belief that a bite from a tiny tick led to Lyme disease and all of this misery. If so, it could be treatable.

Before the beginning of 2010, life hadn’t looked better for the Harriss family.  Karin said she was cruising through Fayetteville State University with a 4.0 grade-point average, an art student needing just four credits to graduate.  Their son, 10-year-old Camden, was thriving at a Montessori school after transferring from the Fort Bragg school system.   Chris, who is assigned to the 7th Special Forces Group, had never been busier as a planner in the group’s move this year to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.  And then, everything went to hell. 

Chris’ slight hand twitch became a tremor. His right leg refused to fully bend. His memory rapidly deteriorated.  

In mid-January, Karin said, she became alarmed by her husband’s condition and took him to the Clark Health Clinic on Fort Bragg. Karin said the doctor could tell something was wrong – Chris wasn’t nearly as strong as he should have been for a man his size. The doctor ordered X-rays and blood work and sent the Harrisses on their way.  Two weeks after that visit, Karin said, she began to see signs of dementia and other changes in her husband.  “It was so disturbing to me,” she said. “I knew that he needed to go to the doctor, and he needed to go now.” 

On Valentine’s Day, a day reserved for romance, Karin found herself taking Chris to the emergency room at Womack Army Medical Center. Her normally docile husband had become confused and argumentative, she said.  Chris left the hospital with a diagnosis of what doctors said appeared to be early onset of Parkinson’s disease, the same disorder that afflicts actor Michael J. Fox.  According to hospital records, doctors prescribed three types of medications, which Karin believes further altered her husband’s mental state. 

In April, sitting by the pond at their home outside Spring Lake, Karin said she confronted her husband.  “You know,” she said she told Chris. “Sometimes you look at me like you don’t even know me. He said, ‘Yeah, you know, it’s like I just met you two weeks ago.’ ” 

By early May, Karin said, Chris had fouled up at his job, an infraction grievous enough to lead to an Article 15, the Army’s form of nonjudicial punishment. The Harrisses would not disclose the reasons for the punishment.  Lt. Col. Tom Bryant, a spokesman for U.S. Army Special Operations Command, said the Article 15 has since been withdrawn because of the factors involving Chris’ medical condition. Bryant declined to comment further, citing privacy laws. The Harrisses said no one notified them that the Article 15 had been rescinded. 

On May 5, records show, Chris was admitted to Womack, where he underwent an MRI and a spinal tap. The records show that doctors concluded he suffers from Lyme’s disease and an altered mental state.  That 16-day hospital stay was followed by visits to private physicians, whom, Karin said, also concluded that her husband suffered from Lyme disease.

 She said a catheter was implanted into Chris to dispense powerful antibiotics that, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, usually lead to recovery within a month if the Lyme disease is treated early. A second four-week dose may be needed for more severe cases, according to the CDC. Karin said the antibiotics appeared to be helping her husband.  

“His head cleared up, he was smiling, he was really, really clear … but he was really weak,” she said.  Despite his progress, Karin said, doctors at Womack decided against giving her husband a second dose of antibiotics. Instead, they referred Chris to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. 

According to Carolina Lyme, an organization specializing in the education of the disease, insurance companies will not cover treatment longer than 30 days without substantial documentation and proven illness. 

In October, documents show, doctors at Walter Reed did another spinal tap and gave Chris a different diagnosis: early onset of dementia caused by Fahr’s syndrome. The doctors said any treatment for Lyme disease should stop immediately, records from Walter Reed show. 

After that diagnosis, Karin said, six counselors followed the Harrisses into a room to make sure they were able to cope with such a dreadful diagnosis. 

“Our life was so good,” Karin said. “His job was good. There wasn’t many more years and he was going to retire.  “You think you had done the right thing, to finally get there, and then just … ” 

About six years ago, Don Warpoole began building the Harrisses’ home, a tidy two-story sitting on an acre and backing up to a pond and woods outside of Spring Lake in Harnett County. Warpoole and Chris Harriss became good friends.   

Warpoole described Chris as outgoing, a man who was always working in his yard or going to the beach with his family.  “He was just one of those guys who had no stress, always in a good mood, just joking and kidding,” Warpoole said. “Then one day I get a phone call and he’s just, like, gone off the deep end.” 

Warpoole said that when he tried to visit, Chris refused to open the door. When he finally did answer several visits later, Warpoole said, Chris didn’t recognize him.  “He was just real disoriented and lost,” Warpoole said.   

He said he didn’t give up on his friend. Gradually, Warpoole said, Chris began to recognize him with each visit, and the two began to carry on good conversations.  “But you can tell he is really going downhill, from what I know of him,” Warpoole said. 

Karin said Chris used to be well liked by everyone, especially people he worked with at Fort Bragg. Now, she said, few people come around.  “It’s like he’s contagious,” she said. “Nobody talks to us. Nobody calls.”   

Karin said there is little of Chris’ former life as a soldier to cling to, other than the uniforms that hang in his closet.  “I go there a lot and hold onto his clothing, wanting that man to return,” she said. 

Earlier this month, Chris resumed his physical therapy sessions at Activcare on Robeson Street in Fayetteville. His therapist, Becky Bliss, sat Chris down on a bench and had him place tennis balls into a basket. Chris’ hand shook so badly that the balls routinely missed their mark.  Afterward, Bliss had Chris get down on all fours and then lift one arm off the ground. Chris struggled, then tumbled, before he learned to do the exercise.  Chris, a man who once won a weightlifting trophy, also struggled to pull on two elastic cords, his arms shaking uncontrollably at the effort. 

When Sean Rooney walked into the room, Karin asked her husband to identify him. Chris smiled.  “That’s Pete,” he said.

 Rooney is a member of 9Line, an advocacy group for wounded Special Forces soldiers. He has been working with the Harrisses for months.   

Chris’ long-term memory is much better. He can recall meeting his wife in Italy and marrying her 12 years ago. She wore jeans to the wedding, he said, smiling at the memory. Other memories also remain vivid.  But he cannot walk up stairs one at a time and has fallen often. His speech is slow, and he struggles to solve even rudimentary mental tasks. 

Fort Bragg has transitioned Chris into its Wounded Warrior Battalion. He and Karin hope that the Army’s medical review board will discharge him on a medical retirement with full honors and benefits.   

As part of that process, Karin said, Chris saw a new doctor at Womack on Jan. 6. The next day, the Harrisses received a memo from the National Institutes of Health, thanking them for their interest in the institute’s Undiagnosed Diseases Program.  On Friday, Karin said, a team of doctors at Womack said Chris suffers from a disease of unknown origin. She said the team wants to enroll him in the Undiagnosed Diseases Program as soon as possible. 

Karin remains skeptical. 

“We have been doing this for too long,” she said. “If that program takes too long to get in, he’s either going to die from this or he’s going to be permanently disabled.”   

There is no guarantee that Chris will get in. The program is extremely selective – only 50 to 100 patients from across the country are seen annually. Evaluation for entry typically takes six to eight weeks, but Karin said the doctors are trying to accelerate the process because Chris’ condition is worsening.   

“Today at physical therapy he really struggled, and it brought me to tears to see it,” Karin wrote in an e-mail the day she received the referral letter. “My husband is seriously deteriorating and it is happening quick! One year ago he was working, running, driving, and planning 7th Special Forces Group’s move to Eglin AFB. And now he can get lost a mile from home, has extreme fatigue, and severe memory loss.   

“This is my best friend, my husband, and the father of our child. He has been willing to die for his country and serve without question and loyalty.” 

These days, Chris Harriss’ only fight is to restore his health, and his dignity.


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