Doctor Calls Illness a Medical Mystery
The Montana Pioneer received the following report in December 2013, submitted by Joyce Queckborner of Gardiner, Montana, who alleges her twin sister, JoAn Winters (an ardent woman of the outdoors who pursued that passion as a calling in and around Yellowstone National Park), passed away in September of last year after contracting brucellosis. We realize the controversial nature of this claim, and that official medical records say otherwise. Queckborner, though, supports her claim reasonably and in detail through her account, presented here. We believe her opinions merit consideration. They read as follows.
An Experience with Buffalo/Elk Brucellosis
My twin sister JoAn Winters, age 83, was a strong, active, healthy, retired Gardiner Postmaster, and resident of Gardiner, Montana. She was a country girl at heart, who loved all of nature and the earth. JoAn passed away on September 6, 2013 after being suddenly struck down earlier with the “mysterious disease” believed to be Buffalo/Elk Brucellosis. Her health went downhill very fast.
JoAn contacted the bacteria Brucella (Buffalo/Elk Brucellosis) either through a scratch in her skin or by inhalation while photographing wild flowers and grasses at ground level in the Yellowstone National Park/Gardiner area. From 2003 through November 2012 JoAn photographed and identified 800 wild flowers and other flora. JoAn created three volumes of Fragile Beauties of Yellowstone. Ever since the 1988 Yellowstone forest fires, JoAn also had many wildlife in her yard in Gardiner (deer and elk year round, and buffalo during winter and spring). Some become sick and a few die (and they are very destructive).
Wildlife diseases should be controlled and eliminated. All we had been told about Brucellosis was that female buffalo and livestock get it, then abort their babies. A Yellowstone National Park authority on brucellosis said that JoAn could not have brucellosis. She would have to get down on the ground and roll around in it. But that is about what she did. (JoAn also created the book We Knew Bull Elk No. 6).
All of JoAn’s symptoms from November 2012 until her death point directly to Buffalo/Elk Brucellosis. Her initial symptoms were “flu-like”, such as minor pains in her joints, back and neck, and not feeling up to par, which were followed suddenly in mid-May 2013 with many recurrent undulating fevers of unknown cause (which ended over a week before her discharge from the hospital on June 26 after being given antibiotics). She had great fatigue, extreme weakness, prostration, some sweating, an inability to hold her head up, a rash and itch over her entire body (which was treated with steroids), and rapidly progressing paralysis through much of her body, possible “meningitis” and immune disorder.
First, paralyzing her ability and desire to eat, and loss of appetite, and the stopping of food in her mid-esophagus, delaying its entry into her stomach, with no explanation why (as reported in the Esophageal phase of the video fluoroscopic swallow study report on June 6)—was the anorexia-like symptom of the bacteria Brucella, which is similar to anorexia, but this type is involuntary, not self induced, and caused by paralysis. JoAn’s weight dropped from 120 pounds a few months earlier to 84 pounds on June 26, and eventually led to starvation by September 6 when she died. From May 20 until June 2 she had lost 8 pounds.
Second, paralysis soon progressed to loss of all movement in her legs and feet. JoAn was forced to try and stand which was impossible for her to do. This paralysis lasted until her death. Third, paralysis progressed to her abdominal/pelvic area preventing JoAn from ever sitting up again. JoAn was force to sit in a chair from 45 minutes to three and a half hours a day. This was torture and very exhausting for JoAn. The medical professionals did not recognize paralysis. This permanent paralysis began around June 9.
Fourth, after being admitted to Deaconess Hospital on June 5, JoAn also lost movement in her hands and arms, but later regained their use and her hands and arms returned to normal. JoAn asked if she had infantile paralysis. Her doctor denied it, saying, “No, you have no paralysis at all,” because JoAn could feel the doctor’s hands when the doctor touched her skin. But there really are two kinds of paralysis—loss of the power of motion or loss of sensation. A person can have one or both. Because of the multiple paralysis through much of her body, JoAn had to lay flat on her back in bed for three months, not being able to move most of her body. JoAn was permanently disabled until her death.
Throughout JoAn’s illness she always had her sense of feeling in her whole body. From JoAn’s mid-esophagus to the top of her head JoAn’s body was normal and active, and her spirit, mind and memories always remained sharp and clear, and she could make all her own decisions. She had no breathing problems and needed no oxygen. JoAn could hear and understand everything that was spoken in her presence, and she could speak to us even when her voice was weak.
On June 11, JoAn was given a Spinal Tap, a cerebral spinal fluid/lumbar puncture. In the evening of June 20 JoAn was told her “verdict” by the specialist when she was alone, and he notified JoAn’s son by telephone. The next day we were given the details. After permanent damage had already been done earlier to JoAn’s physical body, they finally discovered inflammation in her spinal cord. “An inflammatory myelopathy” (disease of the spinal cord)…probably viral or post viral,” and “cerebrospinal” (affecting the brain and spinal cord). It was caused by an uniden-tified virus, which would probably never be identified. Neither this condition, nor the permanent paralysis it caused, could be reversed nor JoAn brought back to her original condition. In the night of June 20 JoAn heard the word “Hospice” spoken, and she thought “That is what I want, to go to a Hospice.” At this meeting I mentioned that all of JoAn’s symptoms pointed directly to Buffalo/Elk Brucellosis, and the specialist said, “You can call it brucellosis if you want to, but brucellosis has nothing to do with the spine.” Strange, because “spondylitis” (inflammation of the vertebrae—the spinal column) is a symptom of brucellosis. JoAn’s death certificate read: Cause of death—Progressive Post Viral Myelopathy. This was the final clue that confirmed that JoAn really did have Buffalo/Elk Brucellosis, despite the negative blood tests.
After the Infectious Disease specialist mentioned animal rabies, I thought of brucellosis and sent a message to JoAn’s doctor, since I was unable to see her, and on June 11 blood tests and blood cultures for Brucella were sent to labs. Some tests were pending, some negative, and two had “no growth” after fourteen days ending on JoAn’s discharge date of June 26 from Deacon-ess Hospital.
Medical reports show the following antibiotics given to JoAn for Buffalo/Elk Brucellosis abortus: Doxycycline began June 8 for viral/ticks. On June 12 the infectious disease doctor changed her antibiotics todoxycycline and ceftriaxone for brucellosis… Brucella abortus antibody in lab. Blood culture are no growth to date…Antibiotics given: Levofloxa-cin started concomitantly with doxycyline to cover possible brucellosis, given her symptoms. June 13: …Brucella culture—no growth after 1 day … we added levofloxacin to the doxycycline to treat for brucellosis. However the brucella cultures have been negative and the antibody has been pending…
The June 26 diagnosis from Deaconess stated that JoAn had a total of 8 blood cultures, all of which were negative, including two brucella cultures. Ultimately it was felt she did not have a treatable infectious cause of her symptoms. All permanent damage had already been done to JoAn’s body before this date, therefore it was not treatable.
Many other antibiotics were also given to JoAn throughout her stay at Deaconess Hospital. JoAn was taken off antibiotics for over a week before her discharge from the hospital on June 26.
Many questions arise. Brucella bacteria is difficult to test, since it “is localized intra-cellularly (within cells)” and it is difficult to locate hiding out in another part of the physical body. Perhaps the bacteria was in the mucous membranes, in the bone marrow or in other body fluids.
There are several types of brucella bacteria—B. abortus was tested, but what about Brucella suis? Why are a few drops of blood the only way to identify a disease? Was the bacteria in an active or dormant stage?
JoAn was given many, many blood tests and other tests for everything imaginable, and all test results were negative, except two. The spinal tap (but with an unidentified virus) and the Esophageal test (that had no explanation as to why) had positive results.
JoAn also had an “abnormal serum protein electrophoresis, significance unclear.” And, of course, JoAn’s many symptoms were definitely positive, but were mostly ignored by the medical staff. The “negative” tests are to numerous to list here, so only Brucella is mentioned.
During the last week of JoAn’s stay at Deaconess Hospital, a doctor told us, “there are many mysteries in medicine that are never solved, and with the negative results of the many tests given JoAn, she is in perfect health.”
Did politics and the local economy enter into their decisions? An environmental assessment debate has been and still is going on at this time on bison year round habitat in the Gardiner and Hebgen Basins on lands adjacent to Yellowstone National Park.
JoAn had four visits to the Mammoth Clinic in Yellowstone, one visit to Livingston Hospital, and she spent 22 days in Bozeman Deacon-ess Hospital (June 5 to 26) and in the Bridger Health Care Center from June 26 to September 6.
On June 26, JoAn was quickly discharged from Deaconess Hospital (they needed her room for another patient) and moved to the care of Bridger Health Care Center, the Rocky Mountain Hospice, and the Veterans Administration where she was kept comfortable until September 6 when her physical body died, and her spirit passed into eternity, and the ashes of her cremated body were scattered to return to the earth as minerals.
The “cause” of JoAn’s death was the bacteria of Buffalo/Elk Brucellosis (Brucella). The permanent paralysis of her ability to eat was a symptom of this bacteria, that eventually led to her starvation and death. There is no scientific cure for paralysis.
On June 7, JoAn told the Palliative Care at Deaconess that her goal was “to get home and get back to normal.” JoAn always planned to live to be 100 years old, as her mother lacked 3 months of living 102 years.
The disease of Brucellosis in humans is rare, but it should have never happened to JoAn. Hopefully, measures can be taken to prevent it from happening to anyone else in the future.
Individuals tell me everyone should be told of our experience. Two newspapers would not print shorter similar articles, they never knew of any human being ever having brucellosis, but humans do get it. Life or death depends on where bacteria strikes in the body. Information can be found on the internet by searching for Undulant Fever (Ruminants Brucellosis—not from raw milk) and MedTerms for online medical dictionary A-Z, definitions. medicinenet.com. Also, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: www.cdc.gov/brucellosis.
We cannot change the past nor bring JoAn back, we can only accept what happened and go forward with our lives.
It is nice to see wildlife, to be part of the country and nature, but it comes with a big price.
Editor’s note: These statements were researched and written by JoAn’s twin sister, Joyce Queckborner, a witness to JoAn’s ordeal, and a resident of Gardiner, Montana. Joyce lived across the street from JoAn in Gardiner, and all the time JoAn was in Bozeman, Joyce drove to Bozeman and back to Gardiner every other day to spend four hours in the afternoons with JoAn. Another close friend visited JoAn on the other days.