Family awaits news on daughter’s illness |

Family awaits news on daughter’s illness

by Jo Rafferty

Jessica Vega smiled quietly from her hospital bed Saturday morning, her room at Carson-Tahoe Medical Center filled with cards, gifts and flowers.

The usually active 14-year-old Carson Valley Middle School eighth-grader had been bedridden for nine days with Guillain-Barre syndrome, weakness in her limbs and total paralysis from the knees down, with her recovery time uncertain. Her mom said she noticed her daughter seemed a little depressed since the night before.

“If she could just see a little improvement, some movement of some sort, I think she’d be happier,” her mother, Rhonda Vega, said.

On May 10, Jessica was sitting in fifth period at school and started feeling weak. She could barely walk to the car by the end of the period, and by later that afternoon she was in the emergency room at Renown Hospital in Reno.

“I was getting weak, like it felt weird to walk and to like open the car door,” said Jessica. “I was fine earlier that day.”

Jessica has two older brothers she has always tried to keep up with. She has been playing soccer since she was 4 1/2, she plays the midfield position on the club team, Elements United, on both the U14 and U16 teams. She is a snowboarder, skier, has ridden dirt bikes and broke her own horse last year, Mia, a Bureau of Land Management wild horse.

The Vegases, Rhonda and her husband Dale, Jessica and her two older brothers, lived in South Lake Tahoe for 20 years before moving to Gardnerville in January 1999. The whole family skis and snowboards and the eldest son, Josh, now 18 and a senior at Douglas High School, underwent brain surgery to remove an arachnoid cyst two years ago after hitting his head while skiing. In October, Darren, 16, in 10th grade at Douglas High School, was competing in a dirt bike race in Nixon, wrecked his bike and received extensive injuries.

But, in Jessica’s case, her condition was not caused by activity.

Guillain-Barre syndrome is an acute autoimmune condition that can lead to paralysis. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (, “usually Guillain-Barre occurs a few days or weeks after the patient has had symptoms of a respiratory or gastrointestinal viral infection. Occasionally surgery or vaccinations will trigger the syndrome.”

Although the cause of Jessica’s condition has not been officially determined, according to Rhonda Vega, her daughter’s attending physicians at Renown Hospital indicated it may have been caused from a booster vaccine of Gardisil Jessica received eight days before she was hospitalized. Gardisil is a cervical cancer vaccine for females ages 9-26 approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on June 8, 2006. According to her mom, Jessica’s doctors prompted a Washoe County District Health Department official to call her and ask her to file an adverse reaction report with the State Health Department.

Phone calls to doctors at Renown Hospital were not returned at press time.

The Nevada State Health Officer Dr. Bradford Lee said based on the Center for Disease Control’s Web site and the manufacturer’s Web site, Guillain-Barre syndrome is not a side effect of the vaccine. The CDC Website states that the vaccine was tested in more than 11,000 females, ages 9-26.

However, the National Vaccine Information Center Web site,, states that tests were conducted on fewer than 1,200 girls younger than age 16 in “pre-licensure trials” and that there have been reports of facial paralysis and Guillain-Barre syndrome associated with Gardisil.

Having Jessica vaccinated with Gardisil had been an easy decision for her mom.

“My grandmother died of cervical cancer,” said Rhonda Vega, “that’s the reason I decided to get it for her. I just thought it was a no-brainer.”

The Vegases feel blessed. Friends and co-workers have been helping them with meals every night, taking care of their pets, and calling them to give them support.

“Jessica’s friends ask about her every day,” said Rhonda Vega, who works as a teachers aide at Jessica’s school.

“We’re trying to get to a little normalcy. Our lives are upside down,” she added.

Although they haven’t had to face the cost for Jessica’s medical treatments yet, they worry about the expense. Jessica received a gamma globulin infusion while at Renown Hospital, which cost them $45,000 for one bottle.

The family has set up a relief bank account at Bank of America in Gardnerville, No. 501001215254. A car wash will take place 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. June 23 in the Stratton Center on Highway 395 in Gardnerville, with all donations going toward Jessica’s hospital expenses. A spaghetti feed is in the planning stages.

On May 15, Jessica was moved to Carson-Tahoe Medical Center for rehabilitation. Her room is reserved for a month. She has occupational and physical therapy three hours throughout the day.

“The doctor said she’s strong,” said Rhonda Vega. “That’s a real plus.”

Three soccer teams have visited Jessica.

Jack Maloney, 19, a Guillain-Barre syndrome survivor, who was paralyzed from the neck down in his junior year at Carson City High School, visited Jessica last week. He just completed his first year at the University of Nevada, Reno.

“It’s been two years, but that was a rough six months,” said Jack Maloney’s mother, Karen Pavlakis. “The minute I heard about Jessica, I started to cry.”

Her son’s condition had been caused by a virus, according to Pavlakis.

Maloney’s visit with Jessica had been uplifting, according to Jessica’s mom.

Jessica’s mom, dad and grandmother visit throughout the day at different times, to spread it out, and friends come when they can.

Laura Parks, who instructs teachers for Douglas County School District, and her husband, Rob Parks, a special education teacher at Pau-Wa-Lu Middle School, friends of the Vegases, pick up Jessica’s homework and have started tutoring her in the afternoons a few times a week.

The visitors help keep Jessica’s spirits up, but nobody can say how long she’ll be there, and she may need more things to keep her occupied, like books, games, cards, jigsaw puzzles and puzzle books.

“Once she is safe, strong enough and able to walk without falling, then she’ll be released,” said Rhonda Vega. “Everybody’s different. It’s just a waiting game.”

How to help

Bank of America account No. 501001215254

Car wash for Jessica Vega, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. June 23 in the Stratton Center, Gardnerville, donations accepted