Mad cow disease devastates young woman, family in Florida

Hers is only known case of wasting disease in U.S.


MIAMI - Just last year she was a University of Miami graduate with a shy smile and big dreams.

Now, the 23-year-old woman - whose family wants her known by only her first name, Charlene - is wasting away with the United States' only known case of mad cow disease.

She has lost nearly 40 pounds and has to be fed through a tube in a bedroom at her father's South Florida home. A blue T-shirt and sweat pants hang off her emaciated body. She can no longer walk or talk.

"She was a sweetheart, always very happy, always wanting to help," said her sister, Lisa. "All we can do now is make sure she is comfortable."

Charlene, who was born in England and moved to the United States with her father and siblings when she was 13, learned in April that she had new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease - the human version of mad cow. British doctors say she got the disease from eating infected beef before her family moved to South Florida in 1992.

Doctors have told the family that the disease can lie dormant from five to 40 years.

No cure is known.

Her father, Patrick, has no idea how or when Charlene was exposed to the disease and worries for his two other children, Dave, 26, and Lisa, 22, who also were born in England and live with him.

He is angry at the British government, which he blames for not doing more to protect its citizens when the government first became aware of the disease in cows in 1986.

But the connection to humans did not come until 10 years later. One hundred seventeen people infected with mad cow disease in England are known to have died, according to the University of Edinburgh.

Symptoms of the disease surfaced in Charlene last October. She attended the University of Miami on a full scholarship, graduating last year with a bachelor's degree in business administration. She had hoped to become a lawyer.

She had been working in the Miami Herald's circulation department for seven years, including her years at the University of Miami. She became forgetful and started having violent mood swings. She began stumbling into things.

In December, Charlene ran a red light in her white Toyota Corolla and totaled the car.

Two weeks later, when her father was helping her pick out a new car, he noticed she would repeat questions. He knew something was wrong.

In January, her Miami Herald supervisor called and asked Patrick to come pick up his daughter, telling him she was depressed and could no longer focus at work. Her hands shook.

Doctors here, unfamiliar with the symptoms, told the family that Charlene was depressed and prescribed antidepressants.

Her mother, Alison, who is divorced from Charlene's father, traveled from England to take her daughter back with her, to give her a vacation.

She noticed how sick Charlene was and immediately put her under a doctor's care. In April, after dozens of tests and visits to a number of British neurologists, her mother got the devastating news.

Alison is most saddened by what her daughter could have become, what could have been.

"It's hard to watch her now, knowing what kind of person she was, how she worked and how determined she was, how she loved life."

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