It started with a headache and back pain, then a fever. But at first, Morgan Larance only had the flu.
Now more than a month later, Morgan, 15, is still fighting for her life, bedridden at Cook Children’s Medical Center with a rare neurological disease.
She was flown to the hospital Jan. 20 after her mother, Jennifer Kimbro, found her unconscious on the couch at their home in Bryson, a tiny town on U.S. 380 between Graham and Jacksboro, about 80 miles northwest of Fort Worth. Morgan remained unconscious for nine more days.
An MRI revealed she had acute necrotizing encephalopathy, a brain infection that can be set off by the flu, said Dr. Mark Shelton, an infectious-diseases specialist who has treated Morgan at Cook Children’s.
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The condition is rare — Shelton said Cook Children’s has treated only one other case in the last two years.
And it’s relatively new, having been recognized in the 1990s by a doctor in Japan, according to an article in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry. The disease’s hallmark, the article said, is lesions that infect the brain symmetrically.
In Morgan’s case, the lesions attacked her brain stem and spinal cord.
“It’s like a termite on a piece of wood,” said Kimbro, who remained by her daughter’s side this week, praying for signs of progress, such as the blink of an eye.
Morgan has developed pneumonia, too, and had to have surgery to drain her chest of fluids, Kimbro said.
She’s going to be OK. She’s a fighter.
Jennifer Kimbro, Morgan’s mom
She was moved from intensive care last week to a private room, and doctors have told the family that the encephalopathy on Morgan’s brain has lessened. Both are signs that Morgan might be improving.
But Morgan has stayed mostly motionless, sometimes aware of surroundings but unable to communicate. In recent days therapists have helped her sit up in a chair.
Once, she squeezed Kimbro’s hand. Another time, she tried to say the word “Purple,” but could only manage the first syllable.
“She’s going to be OK,” Kimbro said. “She’s a fighter.”
Back in Bryson and in surrounding towns, the community support for Morgan and her family has been steady.
There’s a hashtag, #Pray4Mo, T-shirts and bracelets with the same message, and schools have held bake sales as fundraisers. One woman raised $3,000 from T-shirt sales, Kimbro said.
At a basketball game against Newcastle, the two schools joined in prayer for Morgan. Bryson lost in the playoffs this week, but their opponent, Lipan, took a donation for her family, said Jason Briles, Bryson’s assistant principal and athletic director.
“The hardest part is not getting to see her smiling face,” Briles said. “She was the life of every conversation. There was never a dull moment around her. It’s tough on the kids.”
Morgan was hoping to attend her team’s game against Newcastle on Jan. 20, a Friday, the day she was flown to the hospital. The Sunday before, she came home from a friend’s house, complaining that her head and back hurt, Kimbro said.
She went to school the next day, but by 10:30 a.m., she was texting her mother, asking for a ride home. Kimbro told her to get her blood pressure checked at the school office, since Morgan often had high blood pressure. At the school office, her blood pressure was fine but she had a fever.
Morgan has acute necrotizing encephalopathy, a rare disease that shows in lesions that infect the brain symmetrically.
Her mother picked her up and took her home, where she lay on the couch the rest of the day. That evening, her temperature rose to 104 degrees, so her mother drove to the emergency room in Jacksboro.
They ran tests on her and sent her home, letting her know the next morning she had the flu. But two days later, she felt good enough to go to Fort Worth, where she had an appointment with her pulmonologist at Cook Children’s.
As a young child, she suffered a condition that badly inflamed her esophagus and has since had regular checkups. Her pulmonologist needed to clear her for a school trip to New York City this summer. The doctor said she was fine.
“Everything was good,” Kimbro said. “… She was completely fine. Normal Morgan.”
Normal, then not
Within a day, everything changed.
Morgan stayed home from school on that Friday out of precaution. But for several hours, Kimbro didn’t hear from her daughter. She called her twice from work, but Morgan didn’t answer.
When Kimbro got home to check on her, she found her lying on the couch, breathing but unresponsive. Emergency workers drove her by ambulance to the hospital in Jacksboro and then flew her to Fort Worth.
“They weren’t expecting her to make it,” said Kimbro, who provides regular updates on Morgan on Facebook.
She was the life of every conversation. There was never a dull moment around her. It’s tough on the kids.
Jason Briles, Bryson’s athletic director
At the hospital, Kimbro stayed by her side, watching and waiting for a sign of life in her daughter. After four days, Morgan squeezed her mother’s hand. But her eyes stayed closed for another five days.
“That’s nine excruciating days,” Kimbro said. “You can’t leave her laying there forever.”
Morgan’s prognosis is still unknown, Shelton said.
Kimbro is just hoping she can regain enough strength to begin breathing on her own, knowing she’s a long way from a trip home.
“I just keep telling her, ‘Talk to God,’ ” Kimbro said. “ ‘Ask him for strength.’ ”