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Augsburg student improves after contracting rare disease from fungus

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An Augsburg College student has been hospitalized for five months after getting sick with a rare airborne fungus that has been known to kill dogs and humans.

Last summer, 21-year-old Nick Sam started suffering from headaches, spinal pain and finger numbness, according to FOX 9. For months, doctors were unable to pinpoint the cause. On Oct. 23, 2013, Sam collapsed at his home and he has been hospitalized ever since. Sam's mother, Lori Schwegman, told FOX 9 he was very close to dying, although he is now hopeful for a full recovery.

Six weeks ago, Sam finally got a diagnosis. He was suffering from blastomycosis, a rare fungal infection that animals – typically dogs – and people can get by inhaling spores of the fungus that grows in moist soils, particularly in wooded areas and along waterways, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. Researchers have struggled to pinpoint the specific source of the fungus, which was first identified in Chicago in 1894, according to the La Crosse Tribune.

Blastomycosis is hard for doctors to detect because symptoms are similar to the flu. The disease is also rare – 2o Minneostans were diagnosed with blastomycosis and two people died in 2012 – and about 50 percent of people who get infected either don't develop symptoms or the disease resolves on its own, the Minnesota Department of Health says.

If treated promptly, blastomycosis often doesn't have serious health effects, but when left undiagnosed it can cause major health problems or death, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. Patients can develop lung infections or the disease can spread to other areas of the body, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

It can be hard to pinpoint where the fungus was contracted because the time between exposure and when symptoms develop varies widely, ranging from 21 to 100 days, the Minnesota Department of Health says.

In Minnesota, blastomycosis is most common in St. Louis, Itasca, Cass, Beltrami, Washington and Chisago counties, the state department of health says. Outside of the state, blastomycosis occurs most often in people living in the Midwest and Southeast (see map) and Ontario and Manitoba in Canada.

Schwegman said Sam could have contracted the disease at their home on the Rum River. She says the spores become airborne once the water recedes, but officials can't determine for sure where he picked up the fungus, FOX 9 reports.

"It's more scary than anything because it can happen anytime, anywhere to anyone," Sam told FOX 9.

Blastomycosis also claimed the life of their dog in 2012 – on average 67 dogs per year are diagnosed with blastomycosis in Minnesota, the Minnesota Department of Health says. The Star Tribune detailed the affect of blastomycosis on dogs in 2012.

For Sam, the infection caused fluid to build up in his brain, which has left his entire body weak. But he's not giving up.

"I think I might be even better than I was," Sam told FOX 9. "Sounds weird, but I will be."

His sense of humor and positive attitude continue to help him get stronger – just two weeks ago he walked for the first time since he was hospitalized, FOX 9 reports.

Sam hopes to be released from St. Mary's Hospital in Rochester next week, where he will likely head to a rehab facility. Sam told FOX 9 it might take him another year before he's back to his normal self.

Sam's family is raising money for his medical bills. For more on his recovery and to donate, click here.

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