W. Richland woman recovering from rare brain disease; fundraiser set Wednesday

Herald staff writerSeptember 15, 2013 

A young West Richland woman who hopes to become a nurse someday now faces a long recovery after a brain disease.

Keonie Torres, 21, was diagnosed this summer with a rare form of encephalitis -- anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis -- an auto-immune reaction that occurs when antibodies turn on the brain and cause it to swell.

She first became ill in mid-July.

"At first it was headaches, but when she couldn't touch her chin to her chest and didn't know who we were, we took her to the emergency room at Kadlec," said her mom, Jamie Hemphill Torres.

Keonie Torres was diagnosed with spinal meningitis, but as her symptoms worsened, she had episodes of violence, didn't recognize her family and was disoriented.

Doctors at Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland discussed whether to admit her to the psychiatric ward, her mom said.

The Encephalitis Society says symptoms of the rare and sometime fatal form of encephalitis can include paranoia, mania, personality changes and being catatonic, leading some medical professionals to diagnose the problem as psychological instead of physical.

"I knew in my heart we needed another opinion," Jamie Torres said.

She and her husband, John, contacted the University of Washington and Swedish hospitals in Seattle, but they had no room.

Someone at one of the hospitals suggested they try Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. OHSU agreed to admit her in early August.

"Which was good," said her mom, "because OHSU had treated two other girls with the same disease."

Doctors are uncertain what caused Keonie Torres' illness but speculate that she had been ill with spinal meningitis since August 2012.

"They believe that was the catapult that brought on the encephalitis," Jamie Torres said.

Keonie Torres spent almost six weeks at OHSU, and finally came home last week.

"Keonie is on a lot of medications and has to take a total of 48 pills a day. And she does it every day with a smile and usually something funny to say," Jamie Torres said.

The 2010 graduate of Hanford High had been working part-time as an assistant secretary at the Pipefitters Local 598 in Pasco while taking classes at Columbia Basin College.

"She was only three classes away from taking the test to get into the nursing program at CBC. Nursing is something she's wanted to do since eighth grade," her mom said.

Keonie's recovery could take a year or more. But, as her mom said, "A year is better than the alternative, so I'll take that."

In the meantime, she will undergo physical therapy at Lourdes Medical Center in Pasco. She also will have to return to OHSU at least once a month for the next year for checkups.

"Already, she's walking with some assistance and talking some, but not in full sentences," said longtime family friend, Tracie Zaring of Richland.

Zaring held one fundraiser to help defray the family's medical and travel expenses and is planning another Wednesday.

"One girl I met through Facebook.com had this disease in 2004 and is fully recovered, so we're hopeful. It's just too soon to tell," Jamie Torres said. "We've all been through hell. I tell people what we've lived through these past months are things you only see on TV."

Many of the Torres' friends, like Zaring, have stepped up to help.

"We have an amazing support group. It's incredible. I'm speechless," said Jamie Torres, who also has a 14-year-old son, Kimo, at Hanford High.

More information

Friends of Keonie Torres of West Richland are holding a taco feed fundraiser from 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Columbia Valley Grange, Road 64 and Court Street, Pasco.

Torres has a rare form of encephalitis and is facing a yearlong recovery. Proceeds will help pay her medical expenses.

The $5 dinner includes tacos, corn, beans and all the fixings. A live and silent auction are planned.

There's also a donation account, Keonie's Recovery, set up at HAPO credit union. The account number is 2644320.

Online

To see updates on her progress, check her mom's posts on Keonie Torres Recovery on Facebook.

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