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In an Idaho town of less than 400, the high school women’s basketball coach is a local hero—not just for his team's four straight state title championships—but also for the four-year battle he’s been fighting against an illness that has taken away his ability to walk, talk, and temporarily even see.
In February 2011, just hours after coaching his team to a state title in a 55-51 victory over rival Richfield High School, Dietrich High School’s head coach Acey Shaw, 40, tended to cattle on his farm, helping to deliver a new calf, Fox 9 reported. Because of the frigid temperatures, he put the newborn calf in the cabin of his truck and drove around with the heat on. Unbeknownst to Shaw, he had, in the process, contracted a serious infection that within hours attacked his brain and led to a months-long hospital stay as doctors scrambled for an answer that would take years to find.
An initial diagnosis was Q fever, along with Chlamydia pneumonia. Doctors had determined that the infection attacked nerves in his brain causing a rare type of encephalitis and disrupting muscle coordination, Fox 9 reported.
Q fever, a contagious bacteria caused by an organism called coxielle burnetii, is an infection that can cause many different symptoms, and can manifest in the brain, leading to meningitis, or can cause headache and confusion. It may even lead to unrelenting seizures and coma. Risk factors include consuming unpasteurized milk, and dealing with animals who may be carrying Q fever, which can cause the animals to suffer spontaneous abortion, or difficult births.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior associate at the UPMC Center for Health Security in Baltimore and an infectious disease physician who has not treated Shaw told FoxNews.com that the initial diagnosis of Q fever was not surprising considering Shaw was involved with the birth of an animal.
“Q fever is something that is well-known to be transmitted to people via livestock, especially around the issues in birth,” Adalja told FoxNews.com. “A lot of that material from the birth or the spontaneous abortion or miscarriage of the livestock can transmit it. The main way that people get it is because they inhale material from the birthing of a livestock animal,” he said.
“That’s why you have to take certain precautions when you are working with a cow in the birthing process to make sure that you don’t inhale the material from the birth that may contain the Q fever bacteria,” he said.
It’s not just cattle farmers who have to take precautions when handling the birth of an animal, as Adalja cited famous cases involving cats and kittens that resulted in a Q fever diagnosis.
However, receiving a diagnosis is somewhat rare in the United States, as only 120 cases are reported each year. Shaw's case would have been extremely rare, with the severity of it only accounting for about 1 percent of cases.
“Q fever is a rare diagnosis to make,” Adalja said. “It’s not terribly common, but that’s because not many people think about it, so they aren’t testing for it with the same frequency.”
It was not until nearly three years later that doctors would reconsider their diagnosis. A brain biopsy showed that there was an unknown pathogen that they then were able to link to bovine. It was a link that had always been suspected, but until the biopsy was conducted doctors didn't have any hard evidence to tie the cows to Shaw's illness.
Since his diagnosis, Shaw has been enrolled in intense rehabilitation therapy and has slowly regained his ability to speak. He has limited mobility on the right side of his body, and none on his left. Shaw coached his team to an attempted fifth straight title this season, but they fell short in the championship game to familiar foe Richfield.
“If you’re negative, it’s bad, so I try to stay positive no matter what happens,” Shaw told Fox 9. “Everybody has challenges, you’ve got to overcome and just do your thing still, don’t give up,” he said.
Shaw considers himself to be a quiet coach, a permanent presence on the sideline offering high-fives to his players from his wheelchair.
“They’ve been doing it for so long; they know what to do already!” Shaw told Fox 9.