Mad cow variant: Woman dying of disease, cause unknown

Saturday, April 14th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WESTVILLE, Okla. (AP) _ Harold Blossom strokes his wife's arm. She doesn't stop convulsing or moaning, she just lies there as always.

Naoma Blossom, 52, is dying of a rare brain-wasting illness called Creutzfeldt-Jakob. The cause isn't known. Another form of the disease, called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob, has stricken people in Europe and comes from eating meat tainted by mad cow disease.

Harold Blossom, 58, works a graveyard shift and spends his days at the Westville Nursing Home, watching his wife's decline and taking naps on a bed near hers.

As he peers into her face, she opens one eye.

``You awake, honey?'' he asks in a gentle voice.

``Sometimes I think she knows I'm here,'' he says. ``Sometimes she's looking at the door when I walk in, waiting for me to come.''

But Naoma has no idea her husband is in her room, her doctor says. Opening an eye involuntarily is a common symptom of brain injury, said Dr. Sarkis Nazarian, chief of neurological services of Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System. ``It's really tough on families because it gives them false hope.''

The part of Naoma's brain that allowed her to walk and talk is already gone. One of these days, the part that tells her to breathe or the part that keeps her heart beating will stop.

``It's been a long, rough, hard road,'' Harold says, standing next to her bed.

People don't believe him when he says his wife has an illness similar to mad cow disease.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta report that 3,000 people have died in the United States during the last 30 years from the classic form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob.

At least 80 people in Europe since the mid-1990s have died of a variant of the disease linked to eating meat from cattle infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly called mad cow disease.

Mad cow disease affects animals much the same way as Creutzfeldt-Jakob affects people, causing uncontrolled body movement as it destroys brain tissue. Mad cow disease was first diagnosed in Britain where about 177,000 cattle were infected. Thousands of cattle have been slaughtered to prevent it from spreading.

The classic form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob can be transmitted between people by brain grafts, corneal transplants and growth hormones made from human pituitary glands, doctors say. But often, as in Naoma Blossom's case, the cause is not known.

Her doctors have ruled out meat tainted with mad cow as a cause. Her family says she's never been to Europe, nor has she had any surgeries involving the brain, cornea or pituitary glands.

Naoma started acting strange about a week before Thanksgiving.

After returning home from grocery shopping, she got so dizzy she fell and cut her scalp. A few days later, her vision was blurry.

When Harold climbed into bed after working his late shift at the Tyson chicken plant in Stilwell, she didn't recognize him.

``What do you think you're doing?'' she asked, jerking the covers away from him. ``Not in this bed, mister.''

The next morning she rummaged through the house, opening the washer and dryer and the cupboards. She didn't know what she was trying to find.

``I'm confused,'' she told Harold, starting to sob. ``I need help.''

The last time she spoke to Harold was Dec. 1.

``I love you'' was the last thing she said.

Naoma, who was in the Navy in her early 20s, spent the next several weeks in a veterans' hospital in Fayetteville, Ark., 30 miles from her eastern Oklahoma hometown. She later moved to the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System in Little Rock.

Doctors first told Harold it was stress and offered drug and alcohol treatment. They didn't diagnose Creutzfeldt-Jakob for a month _ when they did a spinal tap and tested the fluid.

Creutzfeldt-Jakob is such a rare disease that most doctors will see only one case in a lifetime, said Dr. Ted Beals, chief consultant of diagnostic services for the Veterans Health Administration in Washington.

The disease has been recognized in the United States at least since the 1950s. Symptoms of the classic and variant forms are basically the same, except that the new variant has a shorter latency period and kills younger people, Beals said. A person can have the classic form for decades before symptoms manifest themselves.

Victims become forgetful and aggressive as their brains waste away. The degeneration progresses much faster than with Alzheimer's disease, doctors said.

``The family has a very hard time adjusting to this,'' Beals said. ``It's emotionally very devastating.''

Gazing at his wife's face, Harold Blossom says she used to wear her long, dark hair loose. The staff at the nursing home keep it in a tight bun so it doesn't get in the way.

Harold reads the Bible to her and shows her cards from her Baptist church Sunday School class.

Harold, a Cherokee Indian, met Naoma in Little Rock where he taught Cherokee language classes. Naoma, who is one-quarter Cherokee, wanted to learn to say ``I love you.'' Harold repeated it to her over and over.

``I tell people that's why we fell in love,'' Harold says with a smile.