Living with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

By Doris Fleck

As I drove out of Vancouver, Canada, on a warm sunny day in mid-February, I felt so unwell that I considered turning around and going straight back to bed. It was the third time in six weeks I had come down with flu-like symptoms, but this time they seemed more intense.

At 25 years of age, I was extremely busy juggling university classes, two part-time jobs and church involvement. There weren't enough hours in the day for me to accomplish these tasks and I certainly had no time for illness.

Fatigue, dizziness and blurred vision hit me with a vengeance, followed by a burning sensation at the base of my neck.

As I drove past the Vancouver General Hospital, I thought I should probably get examined at the emergency ward, but I dismissed this notion as foolish. My parents lived a mere hour away. A good night's sleep and some old-fashioned care would make me feel better in no time.

As I continued to drive through the city, the symptoms gradually became more severe. The burning in my neck climbed up the back of my head. As I approached the Port Mann Bridge, a tingling sensation enveloped my head. Suddenly I became very dizzy and felt faint. I panicked! What if I fainted out while I was driving over the bridge? I had heard of cars crashing over the cement barrier and catapulting into the Fraser River.

My heart was racing and I began to gasp for air. The tingling rapidly changed into a progressive numbness that cascaded over my neck and down my upper body. I could see my arms, but they felt like cotton balls. Was I becoming paralyzed? My panic increased. I thought I might be having a stroke. I began praying out loud, begging God to spare my life.

Thankfully, I was over the bridge in a minute. Relieved, I drove to the lookout station on the other side. I intended to rest for a while and then continue on, but the numbness had already spread to my legs. I was so frightened I called an ambulance and was rushed to the nearest hospital in Surrey.

Symptoms Baffle Doctors

Thus began six years of confusion, questions, emergency room visits and medical testing. My symptoms confounded over 40 doctors and specialists until I was finally diagnosed with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) as it is commonly referred to today.

When I became sick in 1986, few physicians knew anything about CFS. Many thought I was clinically depressed or concluded my bizarre assortment of symptoms were emotionally induced. On the advice of a doctor, I went to see a psychiatrist. After three visits she told me my troubles were medical and advised me to see a doctor. When I produced a long list of the specialists I had already seen she merely shrugged her shoulders.

If I had understood more about the disease at the time, I would have realized I was a "textbook" CFS patient. According to clinical researcher and medical doctor, Michael Rosenbaum, over 70% of people afflicted with CFS in America are Caucasian women who are well-educated, affluent and in their early 20s to mid-40s. Most people, like myself, report a sudden onset of the disease with symptoms that generally come and go.

Although many see a measure of recovery and some regain complete health, others are severely disabled for many years. For a few, the disease never goes away.

I went from being a very active, energetic, enthusiastic person to bedridden in days. My symptoms continued in a cyclical pattern from severe disability to various stages of remission over the next nine years.

The fatigue that plagued me was something I had never experienced before. I wasn't just tired; I felt like I had 20 pound weights attached to my arms and legs. This was combined with a litany of other symptoms that included muscle pain, heart palpitations, night sweats, cold hands and feet, numbness, intense pressure in my head, inability to concentrate, insomnia and nausea. I became intensely afraid of what was happening to me.

I had to drop out of university and spent the next eighteen months using the little energy I had to search for solutions.

No Quick Diagnostic Tool

While the multiplicity of symptoms I suddenly experienced are now commonly used to define CFS, they also fit a number of other diseases. Since no quick diagnostic tool is available, most CFS sufferers undergo a plethora of medical tests to rule out other diseases; I was no exception. I gave hundreds of blood and urine samples as I was tested for lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, thyroid dysfunction, cardiac problems, cancer and a host of other ailments. I underwent a CT-scan to rule out multiple sclerosis and the possibility of a brain tumor. I endured three separate six-hour glucose tolerance tests to check for diabetes and hypoglycemia. The doctors reviewing these tests said I had reactive hypoglycemia, but concurred it should not be this debilitating.

One doctor encouraged me to "get on with your life." I asked him how that was possible when simple tasks, like sitting up for 10 minutes at a time, completely exhausted me. He had no answers.

In their excellent book, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: A Treatment Guide, authors Erica Verrillo and Lauren Gennman explain that this is, "one of the most complex, multifaceted, baffling illnesses the medical world has encountered."

No one has yet clearly identified the cause of CFS, found a cure or even developed a good case definition. According to Verrillo and Gennman, "It is hard to describe and even harder to diagnose because its symptoms can range from allergies to vertigo and can occur in every imaginable combination. Most confusing, however, is the range in severity of CFS, from mere inconvenience to utterly disabling disease."

For myself, necessary functions became almost insurmountable. Walking a few feet to the bathroom was so exhausting, I felt like I was trying to conquer Everest. I began measuring every action in terms of the energy it consumed and how much recovery time I would need afterwards. Over the next nine years fully half of my days were spent lying in bed, trying to gather strength for eating, talking and bathing. It was a living nightmare.

In the early 1990s, Rosenbaum estimated 90 million people worldwide were afflicted with CFS. Like AIDS, CFS is recognized as an acquired immunodeficiency disorder. Unlike AIDS, it isn't deadly, but produces a paralytic fatigue that makes many CFS sufferers wish they were dead.

The first recorded "epidemic" of a CFS-like illness occurred in 1934 in Los Angeles and affected close to 200 health workers. This outbreak followed on the heels of a poliomyelitis epidemic and was initially, incorrectly diagnosed as polio. To this day, similarities between these two diseases have researchers searching to discover a mutated viral form of polio, which could be the root cause of CFS.

Treatment Options

With no known cause and little understanding of the mechanism of this confounding disease, treatment options have been scarce. Although doctors now recognize CFS as a disease and are capable of a relatively quick diagnosis (three months to a year), their inability to effectively treat the disease has caused multitudes to turn to alternative health care.

Rosenbaum concludes that the results of this have been very beneficial. Many people with CFS have been found to be plagued by parasites and on-going candidiasis, a form of yeast infection, as well as suffering from hypoglycemia. Appropriate treatment for these problems has resulted in many sufferers achieving dramatic results. Though not a cure, many people are able to return to a semblance of normal living.

Personally, I found a good naturopath and allergist within 18 months of my diagnosis. Adhering to a strict diet, fighting off the candida and making use of massage therapy helped immensely. Even though I had two severely debilitating relapses that lasted at least a year in length, I have found a doctor that keeps apprised of the current research on CFS treatments.

Use of B-12 injections combined with Magnesium Sulfate have proven beneficial. A combination of prescription drugs to help me sleep and natural remedies along with ongoing prayer have helped keep me relapse-free for the last seven years.

Even though I was totally bedridden at one time and wished I were dead, I am now so thankful to be alive. Although I could have a relapse at any time, each day when I awake with energy to work and enjoy life I am grateful. Without the support of an amazing husband, caring family, compassionate friends, and a church group that supplied meals and prayer, I don't know if I would be alive today.

For more information on CFS, The Nightingale Research Foundation can be contacted on the web at Two excellent resource books with solid advice on treatment are; Solving the Puzzle of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome by Dr. Michael Rosenbaum & Dr. Murray Susser and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Treatment Guide by Erica Verrillo & Lauren Gellman.


Doris Fleck is the Assistant Editor of City Light News, a Christian newspaper covering Calgary and south-central Alberta. She is happily married to the publisher and editor of the newspaper, Peter Fleck. Doris enjoys writing, crafts and photography. She also has a B.Sc. in Zoology that enables her to take good care of her dog, Pokey.



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