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A LONG ROAD TO RECOVERY
Kaden Watson’s family often refers to him as the “social one.” So when the energetic 6-year-old boy from Visalia didn’t do his characteristic “funny dance” after leaving church one Sunday and seemed consistently tired, they knew something was wrong.
What Kaden’s family didn’t know was that he had contracted valley fever, a flu-like and potentially deadly illness caused by inhaling airborne spores of a dirt-dwelling fungus. Endemic to our region, especially the South Valley, the hard-to-detect disease enveloped Kaden’s chest so severely that at one point his trachea narrowed to only 4 mm.
“Essentially Kaden was breathing through an opening the size of a straw,” says Dr. James McCarty, Children’s medical director, pediatric infectious disease, who has 25 years’ experience treating valley fever. “Kaden had the worst case of mediastinitis (tissue inflammation in the mid-chest) I’ve seen.”
Family desperate for answers
Kaden began not feeling well in January, at the height of the flu season. He had typical pneumonia symptoms – persistent cough, congestion and watery eyes that eventually included fever, vomiting and night sweats. But even after his local pediatrician prescribed two rounds of oral antibiotics, his health seemed to get worse, not better. A mass the size of a golf ball also developed at the base of his neck.
Desperate for answers, Kaden’s parents, Kandis and Phillip Watson, brought their little boy to Children’s Hospital Central California in February. “We wanted someone to tell us what was going on with our son,” says Kandis.
Seeing Kaden’s symptoms and imaging results, Dr. McCarty suspected valley fever, which a blood test confirmed. Kaden was admitted to Children’s to start aggressive treatment. To alleviate symptoms and ease Kaden’s restricted breathing, caregivers administered antifungal medication and steroids to shrink the inflammation in his chest and lymph nodes. He was transferred to the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) for closer monitoring.
“Kaden was very ill – his face looked sucked in, pale, and he had this horrible cough,” recalls Kandis. “We were very scared for his life. Dr. McCarty said he stayed up all night worrying about Kaden. It made me feel great as a parent, that he cared so much.”
The combination of therapies worked, and Kaden became well enough to move from the PICU back to the floor. “The high-quality care in the PICU helped keep him alive,” says Dr. McCarty.
Recovery in sight
But as often the case with valley fever, Kaden’s road to recovery would be long. “What I tell patient families is they can’t think in terms of days and weeks, but in weeks and months,” says Dr. McCarty. “It’s a very stubborn disease.”
“I hated hearing that, but I appreciated Dr. McCarty’s honesty,” says Kandis. “He didn’t want to give us false hope.”
Kaden remained hospitalized at Children’s for six months, including another stay in the PICU when his condition escalated again.
“I prayed all the time, hoping one day everything would get better for him,” says Kandis.
The Watson family’s wish was answered. “I’m so excited,” says Kaden, the day before being discharged from the Hospital. “I’ll get to go with
my mom and dad, and sleep in my own bed.”
The ordeal hadn’t been easy – on Kaden or his family. “I was impressed how they pulled together and stayed strong,” says Dr. McCarty. “They relied heavily on their faith.”
“It was hard but we did it,” says Kandis. “Everyone at Children’s made it easier.”
Kandis noticed how Kaden grew from the experience as well. “He never complained once, about anything,” she says. “He’s only 6 but he’s matured through this.”
Based on his experience, Kaden had a suggestion for other ill children: “Stay strong, take your medication and get healthy!”
But while Kaden’s condition has greatly improved, some fungus still remains in his chest. With assistance from home care services, he continues to receive medication to treat the disease. In addition to seeing Dr. McCarty, he also receives follow-up care with pediatric nephrology and endocrinology specialists at Children’s to address effects from treatment.
“Kaden looks much better and has more energy,” says Kandis.
“Thankfully the worst is over.”