Now that it’s that dreadful time of year again, let me tell you about the November Factor, a phenomenon that was reported immediately in both the Lake Tahoe and Lyndonville outbreaks of ME/CFS – a season where people seem to fall apart for no apparent reason.
The best doctors can come up with is “Seasonal Affective Disorder”, lack of sunlight and stress of the holidays. But I think there’s a bit more to it, based on what I saw at the inception of CFS.
It’s a a long read, but bear with me. I’m going somewhere with this.
If robbery is taking without permission, CFS could be the greatest thief of all.
Certainly much has been stolen – the energy to go to work, to play with your children; the ability to enjoy reading a book; the luxury of a refreshing sleep. And, like true, great crimes, the victim sometimes does not even realize that a robbery has been committed.
It is as if the thief in a department store steals the surveillance camera along with the jewelry. The thief of CFS steals not only energy, it may rob the victim of the ability to perceive loss. And the mechanism is simple: Energy is quietly replaced with guilt.
Because the victim feels guilty about experiencing fatigue, the robbery goes unreported. Is it any wonder that this is a controversial illness?
The gift of human nature is the perception of who and what we are. We see ourselves either accurately or inaccurately dependent upon personality and the myriad of factors we call life. We see and feel, relating these experiences to our image of who we think we are. Because fatigue is something to be ashamed of in our society, it may go unreported.
The thief makes off with the priceless essence of our life and replaces it with a plaster statue of guilt. CFS becomes a thief of identity as well as activity. It is possible to say “I am an athlete,” or “’I am a devoted parent.”
When CFS has crept out the back door with energy and hope in a burlap sack, these statements are no longer possible.
It makes no difference whether they were accurate to start with. Even if a fantasy, they were a real fantasy for us. With CFS, even fantasies and dreams are stolen. It is like the movie The Dark Crystal, where the small victims are placed in an evil machine that sucks out their ‘vital essence’. CFS is the thief of the ‘vital essence’.
CFS will do to medicine what quantum mechanics has done to physics. The laws, once considered inviolable, are turned on their head.
Just as we were comfortable with the simplistic notions of physics before relativity, doctors are comfortable with the simple notions of medicine now. It really makes little difference that these notions are incorrect, except to those who are not helped by modern medicine.
When CFS becomes accepted and understood, the simplistic mechanisms will be replaced by theories that are able to explain what is now considered subtle. And, of course, with this understanding will come effective treatments – not just those to improve the symptoms of CFS – but those that will revolutionize medicine.
An example of an illness assumed to be straightforward but is, in fact, bewildering, is the ‘flu.’
A person will say, “I was well until a year ago February when I got the flu.” Or “In the months before I got sick I kept getting the flu.” Or “My immunity must be low because I have had the flu three times this winter.” And of course, when the doctor has no idea of what may be causing your symptoms, comes the standard, “I think it is the flu.”
The longer I study medicine the less I understand about the flu.
Jason Ewing was in his mid-thirties, and apart from being a little overweight, appeared like many up-and-coming executives who trooped into the company offices in the morning, brief case swinging at his right side. He had a promising career until two years ago when he developed a typical case of the flu. Actually, as with many persons with CFS, there was one minor difference. This flu had more-than-usual exhaustion associated with it.
It is a detail frequently overlooked, and it has always been difficult to tell whether there really was more exhaustion with this first flu or whether now, two years later, the fatigue is remembered more prominently.
But at the time Jason took time from work and returned, still not feeling well, a week later. He had not even bothered to see his doctor during the illness because ‘it was just the flu.’ Two weeks later he had crept almost to the point of recovery, and paid it little attention. He was at work when the flu came back a second time.
Jason noted with clarity that this second flu episode was identical to the first.
Not just a similar illness, but the same illness. And now we are getting into strange territory. If a person gets a cold, we assume runny nose, cough, sore throat. But, like ice cream, colds come in many varieties – hundreds in fact – and they are all slightly different.
For example, one cold starts off with a scratchy throat, swollen glands, a little nausea and intense sneezing which lasts a day. But this cold is not the same as that of the neighbor down the street, sore throat and headache but no sneezing. We can call them both colds, but the pattern of symptoms is slightly different, and indeed with viral studies we can see that the initiating virus is also different. But what Jason noticed was that whatever the first virus had been, the second one felt exactly the same.
It would be hard to describe the specific combination of 20 symptoms that made up this particular ‘flu’. It would be like trying to describe an unknown ice cream flavor. In the ice cream store drooling Mocha Vanilla from the corner of your mouth, you say, “that’s it.” And it was a second one. It was separate from the first because he had recovered, implying that his body’s immune mechanism had conquered the first invader. He had returned to work and nearly forgotten about the flu three weeks before.
He went to the doctor and described the course and symptoms, and the exact similarity of the second course to the first. His doctor said that he could not get the same ‘flu’ twice, and that it must be a coincidence that the two were similar.
Jason nodded agreement; they had just made a pact to accept a statement, clothed in the language of science, that was obviously wrong.
There are many viruses that cause the illness we call the common cold. In fact the viruses that cause colds are of several different groups. Flu viruses are a little different, but sometimes it is difficult to say by the symptoms if something is a cold or the flu, because they overlap so much.
In general a cold is mild, one or two days of feeling crummy, and the flu is a week. The flu can be dangerous to older people because they develop secondary infections. And there is a vaccine to cover many of the strains of flu that appear during a given winter. There is the ‘Warsaw’ flu, the ‘Beijing’ flu, the ‘Moscow’ flu. It always seemed to me as a medical student that the different strains of flu were named for communist cities as if they were deliberate attempts at biologic warfare.
Each flu strain is distinct. If you had the ‘Hong Kong’ flu once, you would develop antibodies to this particular viral strain and recover. Then, because of blood cells called memory T-cells, you would remember this strain and not get it again, except in the rare instance after decades when the memory T cells become a little senile. That is why, in general, we get chicken pox or measles once in childhood and then do not get these illnesses again when our children have them.
It is difficult to measure or determine the specific strain of virus during an infection. The government will look for new strains in order to include them into the flu vaccine, but because they take several weeks and are costly they are not routinely done during a flu infection. You go to the doctor and he or she says “You have the flu. Please pay at the front desk.” (As an aside, have you ever noticed that the first ten visits for CFS are said to be due to a virus, and the next ten are said to be due to depression?)
So therefore it is not likely that Jason had the same flu twice in a row. And all of this would not have made any difference if everything got better and resolved.
Jason didn’t care much about T-cells and strain variation. Unfortunately, as he was recovering from this second bout he had a third, again with identical symptoms. There was a very particular set of discomforts that made up this flu and a particular malaise, and it came back full force.
He was treated with antibiotics – maybe it was a sinus infection – and again recovered, only to get it again a fourth time.
Over the next six months the process kept repeating with one significant trend. The episodes of this “flu” began coming closer and closer together and the recovery period shortened.
Six months after the initial episode, they were no longer separate bouts, but a constant illness with the symptoms of abdominal pain, flu-like aching, sore throat, joint pain, headache, blurry vision, trouble concentrating, and, of course, exhaustion.
Instead of being 35 and playing piggy-back with his children, Jason had CFS.
Jason’s six-month onset was not the most common for CFS, but then, again, there are many types of onset in this illness.
Jason’s particular onset, however, raises several important questions:
• Is the illness due to a flu-like virus?
• Is CFS due to an unusual virus that plays hide and seek for the first six months?
• Or does CFS have nothing to do with a virus at all?
Can flu-like symptoms be due to something other than an infection with a tiny microbe? The first time this question ever occurred to me was while I was an intern, working 36-hour shifts in the intensive care nursery. After being up all night and struggling to remember where I parked my car, I would notice that my lymph gland felt swollen and that I was coming down with the ‘flu.’ But after a coma-like sleep I would be recovered and ready to hit the next 36-hour shift.
Another of life’s ironies: They have now made it illegal for interns to work those hours because they would prescribe the wrong medications, put IV fluids in the wrong patients, and make other mistakes due to fatigue. But when a person is disabled with CFS and is constantly in that exhausted state, no one believes them, particularly the former interns.
The most common type of onset in CFS is the “acute onset” flu-like illness that does not resolve.
Yet even in this more frequent type, there are parallels with Jason’s flu. In the acute onset, there is a flu-like event, which after five days or so begins to resolve, just as one would expect with the flu. But after the initial resolution, almost to good health, the symptoms come crashing back and do not disappear again.
This implies that the illness is a little uncertain, it wavers a little at the beginning as if trying to make up its mind. “Shall I come down on Mrs. Peterson or not?” If this is so, it had a really hard time deciding about Jason.
A second unusual detail common to the onset of CFS is the severity of the fatigue during the initial episode of the apparent flu. Again, difficult to differentiate in retrospect, but in the initial illness, the fatigue seemed to be more severe than usual.
When I observed the outbreak in Lyndonville, I felt that this was one detail which set this flu apart from all the others. In fact I felt that you could even guess which people were destined to not get better – although I never hinted that at the time.
The belief I held was that there was a unique infection which caused CFS.
What is it about the flu that causes the symptoms that everyone knows only too well? The conventional explanation is that with an infection, viral or otherwise, chemical mediators designed to fight the infection are released into the blood stream. And it is the presence of these immune substances that actually cause the symptoms.
Part of the evidence for this is that when these substances are infused into healthy people they feel rotten, as if they had the flu. The flu virus and many other viral, and bacterial agents stimulate the production of these normal chemicals, which causes the symptoms. When the body’s immune mechanism destroys the infecting virus or bacteria the production of these immune mediators shuts down with a return to good health.
With Jason, the onset had begun as a typical viral infection followed by repeat episodes or relapses until a continuous illness developed. His course of CFS was then typical: There were good days and bad days, but no days without exhaustion, brain fog, and muscle and joint pain.
There were the usual problems with diagnosis, many specialists consulted, tests run. After 15 months the diagnosis of CFS was made.
The time when the flu-like events coalesced into a continuous illness was around March of 1995. By summertime the symptoms followed a daily ritual that varied little.
• He would have four or five hours of up-and-around activity, headaches every other day, and so on.
• When he had a bad week, his activity would drop down to two to three hours a day and he would feel more ill.
• On a good week, sometimes coinciding with sunshine and a warm breeze off the lake, the activity could go as high as six good hours a day.
Summer eased on into fall, and into November.
Jason had a severe relapse in November, and felt the same as at the onset of his illness. Exactly the same.
His symptoms worsened to the degree that he was confined to bed for two weeks. He saw his physician who, predictably enough, said he had a virus and to take plenty of fluids and aspirin. On the next visit he was given an antibiotic just to be on the safe side. The flavor of this virus was the same flavor that had started his illness nearly two years earlier.
In this detail, Jason is not unique. CFS is an illness of relapses and remissions, and when patients describe relapses, they describe very similar events to those which occurred in their onset. It is not uncommon to hear, “It was like it was beginning all over again.”
It is because of this observation that the theory of a persistent infection, one that does not resolve, has been a steady thread through the tapestry documenting the history of CFS.
Viral and bacterial candidates come and go, but the proof has been hard to come by.
A second characteristic of Jason’s relapse that seems typical of CFS was its occurrence in November. In our office we call it the “November Factor.” For some reason, people with CFS get sick or sicker in late fall, and our telephone rings off the hook. I believe there is some connection between the unusual onset type and the worsening which occurs in November.
One possible explanation is that the patient has caught another bug. Kids are back in school, a perfect breeding ground for bugs of all sizes. They bring these bugs home, particularly this year’s variety and share them with their parents. The relapse is due to a worsening caused by an intercurrent infection, probably viral. This explanation implies that the relapses, and possibly the onset, are random, due to any old virus.
A second possible explanation is that summer is over and winter is setting in. Many persons with CFS feel better in the summer, perhaps because there is less stress, and more time sitting around on the porch in the warm August air. For young persons and schoolteachers, summer is a time of unsustained activity. That is, instead of eight straight hours of work, school or study, it is an hour here, a couple of hours there with rest in between. Therefore starting back to a day with eight straight hours of work or school can precipitate a relapse.
In this theory, the November factor is the resumption of sustained upright activity after a stress-free, relaxing summer. This possibility implies that a critical amount of sustained activity initiates a relapse, a common experience for persons with CFS.
A third possibility has to do with sunlight. Upstate New York, next to Lake Ontario, undergoes a change in November. The days become short with sunset at 4:45 PM by mid December. Worse yet, water vapor from the lake creates a perpetual cloud bank that drifts over Lyndonville and lingers for the next four months. Mid day is gray, bleak and cold, and all sensible adults have left for Florida.
Perhaps the lack of sunlight alters the brain’s melatonin and the addition of seasonal affective disorder is the November factor. Nearly everyone around here is depressed all winter, a fact that the chamber of commerce leaves out of the brochures. Our great joy in winter is a good nor’easter storm which blows the clouds up to Toronto and gives us several wonderful days of sunlight in which we can shovel snow. My lack of enthusiasm for winter here is more than compensated for by the arrival of the geese in the spring and the following months of cherry and apple blossoms that blanket the county.
There are other possibilities. With the coming of cold and bleak weather in November, people go into their homes, shut the windows, add plastic sheeting to
help insulate the windows and begin breathing more carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide, despite being a deadly poison, is very interesting. It can cause a flu-like illness and prolonged neurologic symptoms very similar to CFS.
Oxygen makes many persons with CFS feel better, at least temporarily. Experiments with hyperbaric chamber treatments, where oxygen is pushed into tissues at high concentrations, have shown improvement in patients with CFS. High altitude sickness also shares many of the symptoms of CFS, again due to decreased oxygen availability to brain cells.
Could it be that the flu-like event is not due to an elusive virus at all, but instead to decreased oxygen availability to the cells? [Note: In 2007, Dr. Bell published Cellular Hypoxia in Neuro-Immune Fatigue – a book laying out his hypothesis that ME/CFS and FM may involve a dysregulation of cellular metabolism leading to the inability of the cells’ mitochondria to utilize oxygen normally.]
Medical science is amazing. The technological advances are astounding. We can rescue one pound preemie babies and transplant hearts, livers, and fingers. We
can diagnose retroviruses and have made great strides in treating AIDS. Few pediatricians can boast of seeing measles epidemics, and chicken pox will not be seen by the next generation of doctors. But try to explain something as simple as the flu.
Jason did well for the most part. The one time he got really sick was when I tried to treat him with fludrocortisone.
He got the same flavor flu-like event, initiating the relapse. It was not as severe this time, and it was not in November. He has been the only person treated with this medication who has had a relapse, but it again raises the question of whether the flu-like symptoms are due to infection or an entirely different mechanism. We stopped the medication, left him alone for two weeks and the relapse ended, albeit slowly.
It has now been almost five years since Jason began his journey, and he has improved slowly and steadily. He is up to eight hours of daily activity, and while the symptoms persist, Jason feels grateful that the crushing flu-like malaise has passed.
– Dr. David S Bell, MD, Lyndonville, New York, August 15, 2000
* This article is excerpted with kind permission from Dr. Bell’s classic book Faces of CFS – Case Histories of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome; © David S Bell, MD,
I would like to call your attention to page 488 of Osler’s Web: Inside The Labyrinth of the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Epidemic by Hillary Johnson, where a fabulous clue is reported.
After leaving Lyndonville, Dr Bell had been called in for meetings between parents and the school authorities of a grade school where a number of children had fallen ill, apparently with the “sick-building syndrome,” a illness caused by toxins from building materials or other environmental sources. “The parents claimed the school is poisonous,” Bell said, “But…. SIXTEEN air-quality experts (have) looked, and they’ve found nothing. What is probably going on is an outbreak of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.”
Dr. Bell just confirmed to me that the school in question is the Tobin school:
So, Dr. Bell observed a cluster that appeared to be identical to the Truckee teachers lounge.
A circumstance which directly resulted in a chronicity of illness, whereas people just a few feet away “Dodged the bullet”, where experts found nothing, despite our insistence that we could FEEL it.