Little Girl Survives Battle with Bubonic Plague

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By Tammy Vigil, KDVR

DENVER, Colorado (KDVR) — It wiped out more than a third of the population in medieval Europe.

And the bubonic plague nearly killed a 7-year-old girl from Pagosa Springs in southwestern Colorado.

But the little girl is now on the mend thanks to her ability to fight the disease, and her doctors’ effective detective work.

Sierra Jane Downing was airlifted from the western slope nearly two weeks ago on August 24.

Doctors there and in Denver were perplexed with why she was so sick and getting worse.

They couldn’t have known the answer dates back to the 1300s.

“We just thought she had a flu,” says Sierra’s mom, Darcy Downing.

But it was the bubonic plague that left the little girl too weak to walk even now.

A hospital audience applauds her for battling what isn’t such ancient history after all.

“There were no signs until much later in the week,” says her mom.

But then on Friday, she got really sick–her parents later learn with a 107-degree temperature.

“She had a seizure,” says her dad, Sean Downing. He pauses, and then continues. “So we just,” he pauses again. His wife says, “It’s okay.”

“We just head to the hospital right then,” he says.

An emergency room doctor in Pagosa Springs called several hospitals—none knew what she had. Her dad says they thought it was a fever-induced seizure and that she’d be fine the next day. “But this hospital said, ‘No. We’re coming to get her,'” he says.

She was airlifted to Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children at Presbyterian/St. Luke’s in Denver, where doctors rushed to figure out what was wrong.

“Her severity of her shock; she was gravely ill. We were pretty close,” says Dr. Jennifer Snow, about how much time the 7-year-old had left to live. “Hours,” says Dr. Wendi Drummond, Pediatric Infectious Disease Specialist.

Dr. Snow recognized her unusual symptoms including septic shock, swollen lymph nodes and seven bug bites on her torso.

“Sierra Jane had found a squirrel and she was very concerned about it. She wanted to bury it,” says her mom.

Sierra had laid her sweatshirt near the dead animal and infected fleas likely jumped on it.

“That was my ‘Aha moment.’ Could this be Yersinia Bubonic Plague? And I immediately called Dr. Drummond for a consultation,” says Dr. Snow, Pediatric Intensivist.

“What exposure had she had? She told me what area of the state she was from and some of the pieces start falling into place,” says Dr. Drummond.

They immediately treated her with antibiotics specifically for bubonic plague.

“She did get sicker before she got better so it was, it’s scary,” says Dr. Drummond.

But it worked.

The feisty 7-year-old and her doctors stopped what used to be called the “black death.”

“If anything, the Black Plague and all the hoopla, really a great infection has occurred and its love,” says Darcy, about the community outpouring of support.

Despite that affection, time has taken its toll.

“‘Want to hold my hand?’ Darcy asks Sierra. ‘I want to go,’ says Sierra. ‘Okay,’ says her mom. ‘Yeah, she’s getting tired,'” Darcy tells the news media, and they wheel Sierra off to her room.

Doctors expect Sierra could go home within a week.

She’s the first case of bubonic plague in Colorado since 2006.

Nationally, about seven cases are reported each year.