Actress Sarah Chalke is best known for playing a doctor on the hit TV show Scrubs , but she discovered her true passion for medicine when her son, Charlie, was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness that primarily affects children: Kawasaki disease. The autoimmune illness, also known as mucocutaneous lymph node syndrome, causes chronic inflammation of blood vessels, which can lead to coronary embolisms and heart attacks.
“Charlie had this rash on his face, unlike anything I’ve ever seen before,” Sarah says. “And then from there, the next few days, he just got so sick. By the fourth day, he was pretty listless and limp in my arms.”
Kawasaki disease is the primary cause of acquired heart disease in children in the U.S., and it is often misdiagnosed, due to symptoms that mimic other illnesses, such as measles, scarlet fever and other bacterial infections. A proper and expedient diagnosis is crucial, however, as Kawasaki disease should be treated within a 10-day window from the time symptoms present. After the disease surpasses the 10-day mark, coronary artery aneurysms can begin to form, which may result in permanent heart damage and elevate the risk for cardiac arrest.
Symptoms of Kawasaki disease present in three phases over the course of roughly 12 days. During the first phase, the child develops a prolonged fever of five days or more, rashes over the entire body, extreme redness of the eyes, swollen hands, feet and lymph nodes, as well as inflammation and swelling of the lips, mouth and tongue. The second phase involves skin peeling from the feet, hands and fingertips. The child will experience joint pain and abdominal pain accompanied by diarrhea and vomiting. The third and final phase consists of symptoms slowly dissipating until they are no longer present. However, once the disease reaches this point, irreversible damage to the heart may already have been inflicted, and it's possible that the child will develop early onset heart disease or suffer a heart attack.
"I really felt like I needed to do something right away to raise awareness, because you have this very short window to get the treatment to save their heart," Sarah explains.
Sarah documented Charlie's symptoms with pictures, which assisted pediatric infectious disease specialist Dr. Wilbert Mason, from Children's Hospital Los Angeles, in his diagnosis. Charlie underwent immediate treatment, as he had been showing signs of the disease for 10 days. Treating Kawasaki disease involves intravenously administering gamma globulin — a protein found in blood — to suppress overactivity of the immune system, combined with high doses of aspirin to decrease arterial inflammation.