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The Myth of “It’s All in Your Head”

DePaul scientists work to unravel the mystery of chronic fatigue syndrome

By Abigail Pickus

In 1980, a high school English teacher from Wisconsin named Pat Fero went on a trip to England. Healthy and in her 30s, she noticed something was very wrong toward the end of the trip.

“We were in this beautiful countryside, and we went to climb a hill to get a better view of a lake and I just couldn’t do it. I thought, I am really out of shape. I couldn’t get up that hill. My legs hurt, and I was dizzy and short of breath,” recalls Fero.

When she returned home the fever hit.

“I had a 104° fever for a week and a headache from hell. I had extreme pain in my neck and shoulders that lasted another week,” she says.

Over the next few years she got progressively sicker until she couldn’t climb the stairs at school without resting on the landing. Then she was unable to write on the chalkboard. “I would misspell things. I couldn’t form the letters correctly. I would miss words. Day-to-day communication became tough. That’s why I left the classroom. You can’t be in front of 20-some kids and seriously not know what you’re talking about,” she says.

In 1988, Fero went on medical leave—and never returned. That was the year she finally received a diagnosis for her suffering: chronic fatigue syndrome.

Mystery Disease

Tragically, Fero is not alone. Using research data developed at DePaul, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that there are currently more than1 million people in the U.S. and more than 17 million worldwide with chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis (CFS/ME)—and these are just the ones who have been diagnosed. (See What’s in a Name?)

Often triggered by a virus, this debilitating disease continues to plague people for years with symptoms that run the gamut from nerve pain and cognitive impairments to a fatigue better characterized as bone-crushing exhaustion.

“Don’t use the word fatigue. It’s an exhaustion so severe that you can’t stand up because you feel like you’re going to faint,” says Fero.

Often lumped together with other so-called “mystery illnesses” such as Lyme disease and fibromyalgia, CFS/ME is historically misdiagnosed or underdiagnosed simply because one of its defining symptoms—fatigue—is both commonplace and seemingly benign. Adding insult to injury, CFS/ME is notoriously stigmatized because of its name “chronic fatigue,” suggesting that the patient is merely tired.

But the medical community is baffled, from what causes it to what it really is: A brain disease? A virus? And with federal funding for research into CFS/ME improving but still lower than for other major diseases, the quality of life for millions of Americans is left hanging in the balance.

Enter Leonard Jason, a professor of psychology at DePaul, who with his team has been making serious inroads into cracking the code on this mystery illness. “DePaul has been trying to validate the experience of patients with CFS/ME, to find ways to lessen the burden of this illness by reporting on accurate prevalence numbers among adults and children, to find effective treatments and to understand its etiology,” says Jason.

It’s a tall order, but with more than 800 professional publications and 25 books to his name (many on CFS/ME), plus more than $36 million in research grants, Jason and the DePaul Center for Community Research have emerged as leading figures in an area of medicine otherwise shrouded in darkness.

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