Denver (Sept. 5, 2012) – A seven year-old Pagosa Springs girl is fortunate to be alive this morning after contracting the bubonic plague while picnicking in southwest Colorado. Doctors at the Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children at Presbyterian/St. Luke’s have been able to get her well on the road to recovery and now the family and the physicians who saved the little girl's life are ready to share their story.
On Friday, August 24th, an emergency room physician from Pagosa Springs, CO called Dr. Jennifer Snow, Pediatric Intensivist at Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children at P/SL in Denver with a young patient who was very sick. Seven year-old Sierra Jane Downing had a high fever and seizures. Because of her pediatric experience and expertise, Dr. Snow knew the little girl needed to get to hospital with a higher level of care, a hospital equipped to take care of the sickest children. She told the ER doctor they needed to transport her to Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children at P/SL immediately.
Sierra Jane was transported by medical plane to Denver and was admitted to Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children (RMHC) at P/SL on the morning of Saturday, August 25th.
Saturday evening, Sierra Jane's condition began to deteriorate. She had a 107 degree fever and pain in her leg. "The parents' communication with me was one of the most important aspects of this little girl's care," said Dr. Snow. "Her mom told me Sierra Jane had a lot of leg pain." Dr. Snow performed an emergent ultrasound which showed she had swollen lymph node in her groin. "Sierra Jane's mom said the family had been on a picnic in a campground near Pagosa Springs. At that point I started putting all the pieces together because I know animals carry the plague in that area. It's so important to listen to the parents because they give you the clues that can lead to the proper diagnosis." The clues were leading to bubonic plague.
Dr. Snow called Dr. Wendi Drummond, Pediatric Infectious Disease Specialist at RMHC, immediately. After discussing the symptoms and comparing notes, they both agreed (and tests would later confirm) that little Sierra Jane had the bubonic plague. Dr. Drummond said, "In the case of plague, there is a very specific antibiotic we need to administer as soon as possible. I ordered the medicine and jumped in the car." The quick diagnosis from Dr. Snow and Dr. Drummond made all the difference in this little girl's recovery.
On the way to RMHC at P/SL Saturday night, Dr. Drummond called the State Health Department to notify them of the suspected diagnosis. She also put into action the proper procedures to protect Sierra Jane's family, caregivers, and personnel at three different labs involved in the testing process. This chain of communication prevented the illness from spreading.
The rapid response of Dr. Snow and Dr. Drummond saved Sierra Jane's life. If the bubonic plague had not been diagnosed, her condition would have worsened dramatically. Because the family was flown to RMHC at PSL, they were able to get the top pediatric specialists in critical care in the region.
Dr. Drummond explains that plague is caused by bacteria called Yersinia pestis. Rodents, such as rats and squirrels, can carry the disease, and it is spread to humans by bites from infected fleas or handling of infected animals; or, in the case of pneumonic plague, through inhaling infectious droplets from an infected person who is coughing. Bubonic plague is different from pneumonic plague, which is an infection of the lungs causing a severe pneumonia. Bubonic plague is characterized by fever, chills and the presence of very swollen and painful lymph nodes. Patients may have fever, vomiting and other non-specific symptoms and may progress rapidly to shock and multi-organ failure.
On September 3, 2012, Sierra Jane was moved out of the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) to a regular pediatric room where she continues to recover.
The Infectious Disease Specialists at Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children at P/SL worked diligently with the State Health Department and the CDC to ensure the safety of all patients, families, visitors and caregivers. The family wants to share their story in hopes of educating other families on this sometimes deadly disease. They are asking families to educate themselves and know the precautions everyone can take.
For more information, please visit The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment website.