Monday, August 8, 2016

My 22 years with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis

I have had Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, or M.E, for 20 years.  The CDC does not recognize this.  They insist that I have a condition called "Chronic Fatigue Syndrome," or CFS.  I have M.E.

At the age of 44 I led a charmed life.  I had been married to the love of my life for 20 years, and we had two lovely children.  We were both college professors - a deliberate choice that allowed us to do what we enjoyed - researching and teaching subjects that deeply interested us - while having the income to live comfortably (because we both worked) and plenty of time to spend with the children (because of the nature of academic life).  I had tenure at a good university, although my sights were set higher than that.  I had a working relationship as an associate fellow with a research institute at an Ivy League school, which enabled me the luxury of being around the best and the brightest in my field.  We traveled all around the country going to each other's conferences, often taking one of the kids along.  We also went to four Olympics, two final fours (NCAA basketball championships) and countless playoff games, several World Series, and, eventually, twenty years of baseball AllStar games.  We skied in the winter and went to the beach in the summer.  It was a charmed life.

On October 24, 1994, I went to my office to grade exams and suffered a blackout.  When I came to, I could not understand one word in the Bluebooks in my lap - they might as well have been written in Cyrillic alphabet.  It took time - and concentration - to be able to stand.  I had fallen down the rabbit hole; my life would never be the same.

Over the next four years I suffered from severe pain in the back of my neck and behind my eyes, 24/7.  My muscles ached, and I had migraine-level headaches.  I had ataxia, dyslexia, sensitivity to light and sound (to the point I had to wear sunglasses all the time), tinnitus, partial paralysis, memory loss, disorientation, expressive dysphasia, and massive confusion.  My family took care of me.  Obviously, I could not drive, and by 1996 I was using a wheelchair when I left the house (which someone else had to push).  My confusion was so bad I once poured a pot of coffee into a silverware drawer convinced it was a cup.  When my family took me somewhere, one of them would have to fasten my seatbelt because I couldn't remember what those two things were for.

Most of the time, however, my family went without me.  Increasingly I spent most of my time lying curled up in bed in the dark, listening to a favorite movie (because I could not bear to look at the screen).   I got around the house by balancing against furniture and my golden retriever, but increasingly I spent the entire day upstairs.  By the end of 1998, I couldn't even brush my own teeth.  All that time, just slipping by.

I was lucky to have a family to take care of me, because I could not take care of myself.  I also soon discovered an Internet discussion list of fellow sufferers, and was referred to a very good specialist in Washington, Marsha Wallace (who unfortunately hasn't practiced since 2000).  Dr. Wallace taught me to live within my energy envelope and helped with sleep disruption and NMH/POTS, but I continued to deteriorate.

In the fall of 1998, Dr. Wallace introduced me to Dharam Ablashi, a researcher who had just retired from the National Cancer Institute at NIH.  Dr. Ablashi had been the co-discoverer of HHV-6 and it's two variants, A and B, while working with AIDS.  I had the version the AIDS patients did - Variant A.  My viral load was over five times the amount used to diagnose an active infection.

I would later positive for active EBV or mono (which I had more than once - most notably in 1990, four years before my collapse, during an outbreak on my college campus), CMV (cytomegalovirus), HHV-7, and three strains of Coxsackie B.

My immune system was severely compromised: My natural killer cell function was less than 3% (normal is about 50%), I had the defective 37kDa Rnase-L, and I had an abnormal cytokine pattern.  But no one knows how all this happened.  All we know is that this disease can occur in cluster outbreaks, and it can pop up in individuals.  No one in my family got it from me, but I believe the outbreak of EBV in 1990 marked the beginning of my illness - the beginning of the cycle of immune defect-virus-damage that characterizes this disease for many of us.  I had to continue to teach through my infection with EBV, including an hour's commute and back, and while I recovered from mono at the end of the fall semester, my health began to deteriorate in seemingly disparate ways, until the ultimate collapse in 1994.

Years later I would have a spinal tap that revealed both HHV-6 and Cytomegalovirus were active in my spinal fluid.  No wonder I had the symptoms of encephalitis, and with the stiff neck, meningitis.  Along with the muscle pain, that meant literally that I had Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, or M.E., a disease that had been diagnosed in the UK since the mid-1950s.  In the United States, however, all I was given was a diagnosis of "chronic fatigue syndrome," a name chosen by committee and adopted by CDC in 1988 to replace the name given a number of cluster outbreaks occurring in the USA at the time, Chronic EBV.  They did not mention M.E. - though there were specialists at the meeting who insisted that was the correct diagnosis for these outbreaks.  They did not ask anyone in the disease community what they thought of this name.  They simply adopted it, and having done so, consigned the disease to the backwaters of medicine where neither research nor treatment could be found.

There could not have been a worse choice of a name for this disease if CDC had hired a focus group,  Chronic (as in chronic whiner) Fatigue (as in "yeah, I've been feeling tired lately myself") Syndrome (as in syndrome of the month) - applied to upper middle class white women "trying to have it all" (as the late Bill Reeves of CDC once phrased it) - how inconsequential, silly even.

Twenty-five years later, 85% of patients - over one million Americans - have no idea what is wrong with them, because, according to both CDC and private demographic evidence, only 15% have a diagnosis.  25 years later only 15% have a diagnosis.  That is a mighty admission of failure.

The infectious disease specialists in northern Delaware dismissed my illness as minor.  "You'll be back to normal in two years," they assured me. Oh good, I responded - I won't have to miss more than two seasons before I can go back to skiing.  "Oh no," was the response.  "You'll never ski again."  How was that "normal?" I asked.  They got angry at that.  That's when I was referred to Dr. Wallace and, thankfully, only had to deal with these people once more, when I was on the antiviral Vistide for my cytomegalovirus infection.  Dan Peterson, my new specialist, had asked them to let me get the infusions at their center, and they had agreed.  But when I showed up at their office, one of the doctors took me aside and said that they could not let me have Vistide because my medical records showed I "only had CFS - nothing serious, like AIDS or cancer."  They said they could not justify using the drug on someone with a diagnosis of CFS - even though it was an FDA-approved drug for the virus CMV, which was active in both my blood serum and my spinal fluid.

Let me repeat that:  once given the label Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, I would meet disrespect from many doctors and people at NIH and CDC. None of my extensive testing mattered.  I was told twice by those in a position to know better, that none of my testing mattered because "you people test positive for viruses you don't have."  I asked what evidence that was based on; that ended the conversation.

Although the progressive version of M.E. that I suffered from was unusually severe, I turned out to be lucky.  I was given the opportunity to go on the experimental Phase III drug Ampligen, in what is called a cost-recovery (I pay cash), compassionate care (I am allowed to do this because I was so very sick), open label (I know I am on the drug so FDA ignores me) study.  I have to get Ampligen at the study site by IV infusion twice a week.  And FDA can take the drug away from me whenever they want.

I have been on Ampligen for 13 of the past 17 years.  Again, I am unusual in that my illness erupts again within a year of going off the drug (which I did once voluntarily, and once because FDA did take the drug away).  FDA has admitted, in writing, that the drug is not toxic.  But they are not "convinced" it is effective.  My experiences do not count because I was not in a placebo trial; I knew I was on the drug.  There is no other drug in the FDA pipeline for either CFS or M.E. (Although there are immune boosters and antivirals available for patients, and an anti-cancer drug called Rituximab is showing some promise).  This is the only one expressly targeted to M.E. or CFS.  Over one million Americans suffer from my disease.  FDA, CDC, NIH - none of them cares - though in fairness, there are individuals within those agencies who do.  It is those who make decisions who do not care.

[Side note about the obsession with placebo trials - If just knowing you are on a drug can make your immune markers return to normal, your active viruses return to a dormant stage, and change tests such as SPECT scans and CPET scores, we should all be cured of anything by happy thoughts.  Does FDA really believe this?]

So here I am today.  I would not have written this were I not on Ampligen.  On Ampligen, I can drive, take care of myself (mostly), read a book, work on my own writing, spend time with my children and grandchildren.  Off Ampligen I am an invalid in bed in severe pain, curled up in the dark because light is too painful, listening to a favorite movie over and over.  Again.

As the years past, it became more and more difficult to get Ampligen, because FDA refused to approve it.  The last three years I spent in Delaware, I had to commute by train twice a week, 100 miles north, to Dr. Derek Enlander's office in New York City, the closest site where I could get Ampligen.  I usually get home around 7 pm.  It was grueling, but at least I am getting the drug that keeps me from being a bedridden invalid.

And then my beloved husband, my best friend, my soulmate, died of bladder cancer in July 2013.  I moved to Incline Village, NV, on Lake Tahoe, where one of the best clinician/researchers in the country practices, Dan Peterson.  (The most famous cluster outbreak of the disease in the US occurred here in 1985 - over 200 patients.)  My infusions are just two miles away now.  I'd like to call the version I have of this disease Peterson's Disease, but he won't let me.  There are a lot of patients here who have the same biomarkers I do.

Myalgic Encephalomyelitis is a serious disease.

CDC betrayed us by giving it a silly-sounding name in 1988 - CFS.  NIH allocates less than $5 per patient per year to study this disease - a pathetic amount.  After a report they commissioned from the Institute of Medicine came back last year, saying this was emphatically not a psychiatric disorder, and that NIH needed to spend much more money on it, we were promised more funding - but so far, haven't received anything above the usual $5-6 million.   See "Beyond Myalgic Encephalomyelitis".

We came back with private research initiatives, funded by cash-strapped patients and their families, and more good biomedical research is being published than ever before.  The whole concept of what "CFS" is, silly sounding name and all, is undergoing a transformation. And for the first time in my memory, clinicians and researchers have agreed on a definition - the Canadian Consensus Criteria, updated with current research.  There are excellent research studies going on at Stanford, Columbia, and Cornell right now - but they get little, if any, NIH funding.  Even Ron Davis, the Stanford scientist responsible for the human genome project, can't get funding out of NIH for this disease.

The main study behind the government's prescription of psychiatric counseling and graded exercise, the PACE trial, has been exposed as a giant boondoggle - but at the moment, the scientific  journal that published it, The Lancet, the institutions behind it in the UK, and the UK government, are still pretending they don't know how deeply flawed it was.  See PACE: The research that sparked a patient rebellion and changed medicine.

Perhaps more important, why don't people outside our community - people in the media, in government, our doctors, our neighbors, our employers - why don't they know that there is a growing epidemic of a severe, life-altering and in some cases life-taking disease that CDC and NIH are keeping under wraps?  I have friends who were teenagers when they got sick, and are now in their 40s. They did not get to marry their soulmate like I did.  They did not go to college or have a career.  They did not have children or grandchildren (I have two grandchildren now).  I was lucky compared to them.

There are patients who are even worse than I was - completely bedridden, on feeding tubes.  See The 25% ME Group and the story of Whitney Dafoe in the Washington Post.

They can barely afford to live from day to day.  Few can afford the testing I have had - if they can afford it, they can't get anyplace that does it.  They go untreated, hidden, silenced.

I have lost too many friends to this disease; we have lost young people to this disease.  The viruses can get into your heart muscle; they can get into your liver.  Patients die of rare cancers as well.  And then there are the suicides.

There has been a new series of outbreaks in the past five years.  Look at those you love, and if you care for them - whether or not you care about us - do something.  Because they could be the next victims.

Thank you for reading.


  1. What in God's name is wrong with your doctors? I have CFS and FB for years and never EVER had your symptoms.

    And $5 per patient per year is just criminal intent!

    1. Like many other diseases, there are different versions of M.E. I was unfortunate enough to get a progressive version. And there are patients worse off than i was. Roughly 25% of patients are housebound and/or bedridden. Only about 15% can work part of full time. It can have enormous consequences on your quality of life. And I have close friends who have died - heart attacks, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and suicide. It has been a long twenty years.

      But I have a good specialist who runs tests and has a pretty good handle on the parameters of my disease.

      Don't you think that if a patient has two seriously neurotropic viruses (HHV-6A and CMV) active in their spinal fluid, which bathes the brain, is going to be pretty sick?

      I've actually lucked out on doctors. Dr. Peterson is both compassionate and brilliant.

      But as for the pittance NIH has thrown annually to figure out our disease - yes, that's criminal intent.

  2. I have had ME/CFS and chronic lyme disease (misdiagnosed for 4 years) since 2008. I would desperately love to try Ampligen. What are the first steps I take to see if it is a possibility?

  3. Since you have to have twice weekly infusions, you have to live near an infusion site. In the US, there are only two sites where you can get it at the moment - Charlotte, NC (Dr. Lapp), and Incline Village, NV (Dr. Peterson), where I am. So, sadly, the first requirement is that you live near, or be able to move near, an infusion site, for at least a year. That probably means it's not highly likely. [And it costs $16,000/year, cash.]

    Dr. Peterson is pretty good at telling who should try Ampligen and who should be on, say, Vistide (an antiviral) or IVGG (gamma globulin, which is an immune product). He puts us through a LOT of testing (which is how I know a lot about biomarkers and viruses). So the NEXT step would be to go to Dr. Lapp or Dr. Peterson and see if you should try Ampligen, or if they would recommend something else. I don't think Lapp does as much testing as Peterson but I don't know for certain.

    Ultimately, it comes down to being able to get to a good specialist. When I lived in Delaware, at first I had a good specialist in DC. After she retired, I started flying out once a year to see Dr. Peterson, so he's really been my specialist for a while. I had a good gp who was willing to work with Dr. Peterson. I used to recommend this combination - a specialist you could see maybe once a year, and a good family doctor.

    Right now things are both depressing and encouraging - depressing because we are running out of specialists, but encouraging because we are having serious discussions about centers of excellence (where patients could be treated, doctors trained, and research carried out); and there's a lot of good research being done. The most promising research is probably in the search for a usable biomarker - a test that can show objectively whether a patient does or does not have ME.

    I wish I had better news for right now.

  4. Hi Mary. We communicated many years ago; I am in Toronto, Canada. You once told me that when your brain fog clears on Ampligen, you feel that all of your brain power is back. Do you still feel that way or do you notice some changes in word finding, processing, etc. from before (even minor ones)?

    1. Yes, I do. That for me is the most consistent result I get with Ampligen. There is only one weird result of all that illness that I've never gotten back - I used to be fluent in French and Spanish. One of my three major fields required for a Hopkins Ph.D. in history was early modern French history (we were carving out a specialty in Atlantic early modern history, which is roughly 1492-1830s). That field was entirely in French - research, articles, conversations. I lost the language when I was sick, and I never got it back. I was also fluent in Spanish, used more conversationally than anything else, but I lost that as well. When I try to speak Spanish I inadvertently use French words with a Spanish accent. Lost those, haven't gotten them back.

      Otherwise, yes, still there. And off Ampligen, it is what i will miss the most.

    2. Thanks for the reply. So glad to hear that most of your cognitive abilities return with the noted exceptions. I hear so much about grey matter or white matter reduction...

      Never got my brain back here - not since the fateful day i caught mono 23 years ago. Long term antibiotics have helped a little, though.


  5. Hi Mary. Is there a way to contact you by email? We communicated long ago. I heard some news just now re: Ampligen in NV...wanted to know if it was true...
    Thank you!

  6. When I get more time I’ll make this a postscript, but I have had two weeks of Ampligen since January 2017. I am relapsing - you know the symptoms, my friends. We hope still to get it back; without it, well, that’s what this blog post was all about.

    . Is my pleasure to comment on this site and i thank the admin of this site for his/her great work so far. I really don’t know how to thank DR WILLIAMS for helping me get cured for over 20 year of suffering from a terrible tinnitus, my tinnitus started when i was 28 year i thought is going to end one day but even get worse as days went by,i have tried all western drugs prescribed by doctors but to no avail i lost total concentration, even at night i screams even more because the sounds become louder because everywhere is quiet. i came across DR WILLIAMS contact through a headline news on internet about how DR WILLIAMS have help so many people to get cured of tinnitus and so many other with similar body problem ,i contacted him and he told me how to get his herb,few day later he sent me the herbal portion which i take every morning for 21 days, and his medicine was able to restore me back to normal and now am very okay without any side effects whatsoever If you have Tinnitus, you can contact him on his email address for help

  8. Dr Williams,his medicine was extremely helpful to me. I have had tinnitus for 7 years now , and my doctor told me to have a tinnitus sugary . I am so glad I have found Dr Williams medicine (as I was surfing the net for a solution and saw a recommendation for it on a women's health forum early this year). I have felt so empowered by the knowledge you have given me and I quickly self diagnosed the individual cause of my tinnitus and armed with your clear instructions, I was finally able to beat this monster, in less than 4 weeks of using dr Williams medication. 9 weeks before the tinnitus surgery was due, I asked for a scan and it was clear that my tinnitus were gone,you can also email him on for help.

    Thank you, thank you , thank you. dr williams "