Brittany Harrison of Santa Rosa was an A-student, valedictorian of her eighth-grade class and a promising ballerina when the symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome set in at age 13.
By 17, she was bedridden all day in a dark room, unable to stand or walk and in constant pain from a severe migraine.
Unable to eat anything but soft food and occasionally fruit, she lost weight and stopped going to school. An associated symptom known as “brain fog” prohibited her from reading, doing school work and even having conversations because she couldn’t understand what she was reading or what someone was saying to her.
“I could crawl to the bathroom,” she said.
Harrison, now 21, is one of an estimated 1 to 2 million Americans with chronic fatigue syndrome, a debilitating illness that can transform hardworking, type-A personalities, into patients who, in some cases, cannot work and can barely take care of themselves.
“It destroys your life,” said Dr. Eric Gordon, a Santa Rosa physician whose practice specializes in treatment of chronic disorders, such as Lyme disease, arthritis and chronic fatigue syndrome. “You can’t function.”
The illness is often dismissed as a psychological condition, another misconception that sufferers such as Harrison must wage in their daily fight against the illness.
For years, researchers and physicians have sought medical clues that would confirm the illness is a physical disorder and which could help in diagnosis and treatment.
A new study initiated by Gordon and including Harrison as one of the subjects could provide that breakthrough.
The study, published last month, detected a “chemical signature” in the blood of chronic fatigue syndrome patients, establishing for the first time that chronic fatigue syndrome is an “objective metabolic disorder,” said co-author Dr. Robert Naviaux, the UC San Diego researcher who identified the blood chemical anomalies associated with the condition.
Gordon is a co-author of the study, and most of the patients in the study came from his practice.
Their study, “Metabolic features of chronic fatigue syndrome” — published in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — said the discovery “opens a fresh path for the rational development of new therapeutics” for a condition that currently has no known cause, cure or even an established diagnosis.
For Gordon, the finding transcends science.
“We’re going to help people get their lives back when it’s accepted that they are sick,” he said.
Wayne Anderson, a licensed naturopathic doctor on Gordon’s staff and a study co-author, said chronic fatigue syndrome, or CFS, has long been regarded as a psychological problem for “depressed people who are poorly managing things in their life.”
And when repeated medical tests find no evidence of disease and the person’s condition doesn’t improve, friends and family “tend to write you off,” isolating the patient, Gordon said.
The newly published study refutes that premise by showing “there is a very specific biological basis for chronic fatigue,” Anderson said.
Harrison, who grew up in the foothills east of Sacramento, said she felt vindicated by the findings.
“I have family members who don’t believe me,” she said. Now she can show them “this is real, I didn’t just give up on life.”
As a teenager dealing with the new illness, she spent many months in isolation, interacting only with her mother, Katherine Harrison.