Only a couple dozen doctors specialize in chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). Now their knowledge could be crucial to treating millions more patients.
Kira Stoops lives in Bozeman, Montana—a beautiful mountain town where it sometimes feels like everyone regularly goes on 50-mile runs. Stoops, however, can’t walk around her own block on most days. To stand for more than a few minutes, she needs a wheeled walker. She reacts so badly to most foods that her diet consists of just 12 ingredients. Her “brain fog” usually lifts for a mere two hours in the morning, during which she can sometimes work or, more rarely, see friends. Stoops has myalgic encephalomyelitis, or chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). “I’m considered a moderate patient on the mild side,” she told me.
ME/CFS involves a panoply of debilitating symptoms that affect many organ systems and that get worse with exertion. The Institute of Medicine estimates that it affects 836,000 to 2.5 million people in the U.S. alone, but is so misunderstood and stigmatized that about 90 percent of people who have it have never been diagnosed. At best, most medical professionals know nothing about ME/CFS; at worst, they tell patients that their symptoms are psychosomatic, anxiety-induced, or simply signs of laziness. While ME/CFS patients, their caregivers, and the few doctors who treat them have spent years fighting for medical legitimacy, the coronavirus pandemic has now forced the issue.