Some parents say a debilitating psychological disorder associated with strep infections caused their children to change overnight—and turned their families’ lives upside down.
Jake Wiederhorn bounds onto the porch of his family’s Potomac home wearing a Captain America T-shirt and soccer shorts. He’s nine years old, bright and thoughtful, hair parted on the left and cut short on the sides, and showing no hint of the nightmare he’s been fighting to leave behind for three years.
“The nausea and the headache’s better,” Jake tells his parents. Around his neck he wears a gold that his brother Max, 12, and his sister Kayla, 7, made for him out of paper. It’s a reward for what he’s been through this week in early August. He spent the past two days playing Xbox at a doctor’s office while an IV dripped antibodies into his arm. The IV can make him feel sick at first, he says, but it’s meant to help him overcome a terrifying disorder that upended his young life. On a late summer day in 2012, Jake transformed from a fun-loving 6-year-old into a screaming, cursing child so paralyzed with fear that he refused to leave his mother’s side. It came without warning. One week, he was being treated for a double ear infection; the next, he was tearing apart his bedroom in a rage.
“It’s hard on the family,” his mother, Debbie, says. “It’s hard on the siblings. It definitely impacts everybody. But I feel like it’s made us stronger as a family.”
She smiles. “Absolutely,” she says.
The Wiederhorns say they can pinpoint the moment the old Jake vanished. He had recently started first grade at Potomac Elementary and was heading out the door to catch the bus to school. Usually, the morning ritual was like a party—he and Max ran down the street to meet neighborhood friends at the bus stop. Kayla, too young for school, came along just to be with them. But that morning, Jake froze. When his friends boarded, he wouldn’t budge. The bus driver, a friendly man called “Wonderful Juan” by all the kids, waited as long as he could. But as Jake stood on the sidewalk with his mom and sister, the driver had to leave without him.
“This was a child who was happy, outgoing, funny, independent, responsible, caring, sensitive and so lovable,” Debbie says. “He just simply disappeared.”
Over the next few days, Jake’s behavior became even stranger. He threw tantrums, which were out of character for him, and spat swear words at his brother and sister, something he’d never done before. He wouldn’t sleep in his bed. He stopped eating. He fought so fiercely against going to school that his parents had to carry him into the building. His mother spent all day in the classroom beside him because he refused to go to school without her. Soon he wouldn’t go at all. For Jake’s family, the incident at the bus stop was the start of a journey into the heart of a medical mystery shrouded in controversy.
Read the rest of the story in Bethesda Magazine.