But that has not stopped her parents, Sadenia and Dan Stefanchik, from leaving no stone unturned in trying to solve the mystery behind their daughter’s illness — something that has puzzled doctors for months now. The Cleveland couple admit to being victims of a series of strange health issues that included kidney stones in their 7-year old daughter, Jessica, heightened mood swings in the mother and the father suddenly urinating blood — symptoms they later would discover were linked to a shocking mishap.
According to Sadenia and Dan, they were both suffering from the flu in March 2012, when the medical mystery started to unfold.
“One night on a Sunday the girls had shown signs of slight fevers and they couldn’t miss any more days at school,” Sadenia explained. “So we took them to Galen Medical Group for pediatric care (in Chattanooga). We got there Monday afternoon and the doctor looked them over. They didn’t have a fever anymore and the doctor said everything was fine. But Haley had several faint spots on her legs by her knees. They were really faint blood spots — like little dots of red blood.”
“You could see them better in fluorescent lighting,” Dan added.
According to the couple, when the female doctor examined the tiny blood spots, her eyes widened and she said, “Interesting!” She then excused herself to get a medical book. When she returned she showed the family images of someone with Rocky Mountain spotted fever and another of meningococcal meningitis.
The doctor asked if Haley had been bitten by a tick within the past few weeks. They answered yes. The doctor said the malady was either Rocky Mountain spotted fever or meningococcal meningitis.
“I asked her what is meningococcal meningitis?” Sadenia said. “The doctor points to a poster on the wall with a happy child, smiling, and the words, ‘This is your child 24 hours before she’s dead!’ I lost all of my color and said, ‘What are you talking about?!’ And the doctor says, ‘We need to start pumping her full of antibiotics, right now!’”
According to the World Health Organization, “Meningococcal meningitis is a bacterial form of meningitis, a serious infection of the meninges that affects the brain membrane. It can cause severe brain damage and is fatal in 50 percent of cases if untreated. Even when the disease is diagnosed early and adequate treatment is started, 5 to 10 percent of patients die, typically within 24 to 48 hours after the onset of symptoms.”
The reaction of their doctor sent shock waves through the Cleveland family as they tried to understand what was happening to young Haley while the doctor prepared to administer heavy doses of antibiotics.
“I said, now wait a second! These are some pretty strong antibiotics you’re talking about putting in her!” Sadenia said. “Shouldn’t we wait to see? She’s not running a high fever and isn’t that one of the symptoms of meningococcal meningitis? Plus, she already had a low-grade fever 24 hours ago, so if it was meningococcal meningitis shouldn’t she be dead already?”
Trusting their physician, the Stefanchiks conceded. Not only was Haley injected with antibiotics, she was also sent home with several prescriptions for more antibiotics to use in case her condition proved to be Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
The family was shocked to discover the following morning that the blood spots on Haley had spread all over her body. Not only that, but the couple said Haley had another fever. So they had to go back to the doctor to get another set of shots.
“It was going up her body, her upper torso, her back, her feet — everywhere,” Sadenia said. “They said she has to go into T.C. Thompson (Children’s hospital)— that she’s got meningococcal meningitis. So they injected Haley with more antibiotics and admitted her in the hospital. Every doctor in that hospital came by just to see those spots. They called the spots petechiae (pronounced puh-TEE-kee-ee).
According to the Mayo Clinic, “Petechiae are pinpoint, round spots that appear on the skin as a result of bleeding under the skin. The bleeding causes the petechiae to appear red, brown or purple. Petechiae commonly appear in clusters and may look like a rash. Petechiae may indicate a number of conditions, ranging from minor blood vessel injuries to life-threatening medical conditions.”
Tiny petechiae of the face, neck and chest can be caused by prolonged straining during activities such as crying, coughing, vomiting, weightlifting and other causes, according to the Mayo Clinic. Certain medications can result in petechiae, including, aspirin, morphine, naproxen, penicillin, quinine and other medications. A variety of fungal, viral and bacterial infections can also cause petechiae, including strep throat, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, meningococcemia, sepsis, scarlet fever and other infections. The Mayo Clinic advised working with your doctor or other health care professional for an accurate diagnosis.
“Those doctors had never seen anything like this before,” Sadenia said. “But there was no spiked fever and that is a must with meningococcal meningitis. There is supposed to be a very high fever.”
Placed on intravenous antibiotics, the couple said doctors were watching Haley closely as the rash started to disappear the next day.
“They released her that day,” Sadenia said. “They said she did not have meningococcal meningitis and sent her home with another prescription for Rocky Mountain spotted fever, thinking that has to be it. Then they did a Rocky Mountain spotted fever test and told us it would be two weeks before they got the results and a week before they got the results of the blood bacteria test.”
Suspicion was growing, however, that this series of health issues might have a common source, according to Sadenia.
“After a month of not sleeping, going back to the doctors and all of the tests coming back negative, I told Dan something is wrong with this house. I kept telling him, ‘It has to be this house!’”
In April 2012, the family quickly moved out of the house and into the home of a friend. Sadenia summed it up, saying, “Dan and I had been sick for two weeks. Right before this we had to take Jessica to the hospital and discovered she had a kidney stone — and now all of a sudden this was happening. We’re thinking what is going on?”
Sadenia, who worked at Life Circle Women’s Health in Cleveland at the time, stated, “Our whole family was in a whirlwind. Haley is not feeling good one minute, and feeling fine the next. We’re not sure what to do. I can’t go to work. I’m trying to go to work as much as I can, but this was a difficult situation.”
The couple said they finally found out what was going on with the old house they had been renting since October 2011, and that had been having such a serious impact on the family’s health.
“We had been smelling an egg smell — like a rotten egg in our bathroom. No matter how many times I cleaned that bathroom, [the smell] was still there. Finally, Dan called the landlord and had him come over.”
It turned out the family’s sewage had been spilling out of the house for approximately two months, according to the Stefanchiks.
“We had been breathing in all of that raw sewage!” Sadenia said. “Within an hour of finding that out — because Dan called and told me while I was at work — I had a panic attack. I had not slept for two months, mind you.”
The couple said they had also been dealing with a plumbing system where “orange stuff and rust was coming out of our water,” Sadenia said. “I took a sample of it to the water laboratory on Blythe Ferry and 20th Street.
“They said there is a lot of bacteria in the water that you have been drinking and bathing in, and there is supposed to be zero bacteria in it. Even though we were using filters they told us filters do not filter out bacteria. So we had been drinking unknown bacteria.”
What caused the pipes to burst, according to the couple, was when the city came through and cleaned out the pipes, the person who installed the new plumbing for the landlord did not glue the sewer pipes together. So when the city blew air through the new sewer pipes it popped the plumbing open, releasing waste under the house without anyone’s knowledge.
“When you have a sewer leak it causes you to breathe in methane gas,” Sadenia said. “So we had been breathing low levels of methane gas, drinking unknown bacteria in our water and breathing (air emanating from) our own garbage and from feces under our house!”
The landlord reportedly sold the house soon after that, according to the couple, who were still reeling from the effects and shocked at what had taken place.
“My husband went under the house and took pictures,” Sadenia said. “We didn’t feel this was done out of malice, but our whole family suffered nonetheless.”
Although the source of Haley’s petechiae remains a mystery, Dan said, “I wasn’t planning on buying a house. I would rather rent because responsibility to maintain and keep up with it is a job in itself. But we’ve bought a house now. I guess instead of an apartment you look for a good landlord. It doesn’t matter as much about the place as it does the landlord.”
“For us this landlord was a newbie, his father had installed all the plumbing and he had good rent,” Sadenia said. “He seemed like a really good guy. If anything, it taught me that you never know. But the real problem is that Haley still has the petechiae even now, and it’s still spreading.”
After the first diagnosis, the family was referred to a hematologist-oncologist, thinking it might be cancer. This too was ruled out.
“Sometimes it will be really bad up to my stomach area then it will go away,” Haley said.
The 30-year-old mother of two added, “I’ve researched this with doctors and on the Internet and the only people you see with this are those who have cancer or children with serious problems — but at present this is still a medical mystery.”
Whatever the cause, the Cleveland couple said they will not stop until they find answers to the source of their daughter’s mysterious blood spots or until someone finds a cure.