What it’s like to be so tired that you can’t leave the house

Former midfielder Alec Waterman was midway through his first AFL season when he was struck down with prolonged and crippling fatigue.

Alec, the son of dual West Coast Eagles premiership player Chris and older brother of current Eagles player Jake, says fatigue left him physically and mentally exhausted.

Unable to leave the house he was eventually delisted from the West Coast Eagles.

‘It was like a bomb going off’

“I woke up one day and I could hardly get out of bed, it was a like a bomb going off,” says the now 22-year-old.

“There were months on end when I couldn’t leave the house.”

Alec was diagnosed with the infectious viral disease glandular fever and post-viral fatigue illness, but says his symptoms were identical to those with chronic fatigue syndrome or myalgic encephalomyelitis (CFS/ME).

“While what I experienced was characterised as post-viral fatigue, it was all of the same symptoms,” he explains.

“There was no test for it, so we were just eliminating what it might be.”

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Talented midfielder Alec Waterman’s AFL career was cut short by intense fatigue. Alec, left, with mum Peta and brother Jake, right.

What is chronic fatigue syndrome?

What the young athlete describes has long been one of the toughest aspects for chronic fatigue sufferers.

The complicated disorder is characterised by extreme fatigue that can’t be explained by any underlying medical condition (among the possible factors are viral infections, genetics and thyroid problems).

And it has been viewed with scepticism by many in the community, including some doctors.

Up to 240,000 Aussies suffer from the CFS, which is classified as a neurological disease by the World Health Organisation (the same category as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease).

Blood test promises hope for chronic fatigue sufferers

Now researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine have identified a biomarker they believe could help identify chronic fatigue syndrome through a blood test, offering relief to the millions of people who suffer from the illness globally.

The researchers exposed blood cells to low salt levels to cause stress they say mimics the effects of chronic fatigue syndrome.

They then compared the blood cells’ response in 20 CFS patients and 20 people without the condition.

They found the pattern of response to the salt stress was different in the CFS patients and says their test has the potential to be widely used in future to help doctors identify and diagnose new patients.

It may even point to new avenues of treatment.

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Alec Waterman

Chronic fatigue syndrome: The quest for answers

Senior study author Ron Davis, a renowned biochemist and geneticist, notes: “Too often this disease is categorised as imaginary.

“But there is scientific evidence that this disease is not a fabrication of a patient’s mind.

“We clearly see a difference in the way healthy and chronic fatigue syndrome immune cells process stress.”

Finding scientific evidence of the illness is a personal quest for Dr Davis, whose son has suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome for a decade.

How Alec is looking to the future

For Alec, every step forward is a victory. Now back with his junior club Claremont in the WAFL, the inspirational young footballer says he’s taking it one day at a time.

“Do I stop to think that I might get a chance at AFL again one day? I guess I do,” he says.

“But getting completely well is my first aim and I am concentrating on enjoying each day as it comes.

“If, and when, the time becomes right, I’ll definitely have another crack.”

Written by Liz McGrath.