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Gardener who nearly lost her lung issues deadly warning

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Rosebery, Bishops Stortford. Horticulturalist Karen Hook. .Pic: Vikki Lince. (8683012)
Rosebery, Bishops Stortford. Horticulturalist Karen Hook. .Pic: Vikki Lince. (8683012)

A Bishop's Stortford horticulturist whose lung was destroyed by mould found in compost and soil has a warning for gardeners this week, backed by green-fingered celebrity Alan Titchmarsh.

Karen Hook felt like she was "being eaten from the inside" before she was finally diagnosed with aspergillosis, a rare, debilitating and sometimes deadly infection.

The fungus which causes it is often found growing on dead leaves, stored grain, compost piles, or in other decaying vegetation.

The 50-year-old former Herts and Essex High School student had always suffered from ill health but her condition deteriorated from 2008.

As a busy parent of two with husband Chris, a black cab driver, she said: "I just thought I was tired because of a crazy life, but I became tired to the point where I could not stay awake."

She said: "As well as extreme tiredness, I had bad breath and felt like I was being eaten from the inside."

Initially, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and treated with antibiotics, but from October 2011, her condition went rapidly downhill.

Doctors discovered a hole the size of a cantaloupe melon in her lung, filled with pus and green mould.

She said: "At that point, I thought my life was over."

She was rushed to the London Heart Hospital for major surgery to break open her chest and resect her lung, leaving dramatic scars and lifelong consequences which might have been avoided if she had been diagnosed correctly in 2008.

She then discovered her illness was exacerbated by Hyper IgE Syndrome (HIES), a rare primary immunodeficiency disease characterized by recurrent lung infections.

The genetic condition also afflicts her sister Sandra Hicks, who now lives in Dorset and has also developed aspergillosis.

The pair were raised in Sawbridgeworth and dad Ian Vernon also has HIES, as does Karen's 26-year-old daughter Jessica. Early detection means the former Herts and Essex High School student is now on preventative medication.

Although Karen has been a gardener for more than 20 years and has a degree in horticulture, her HIES means it is not possible to pinpoint the cause of her infection to her work, but she and her sister campaign for the Aspergillosis Trust and are desperate to increase awareness of the disease and its symptoms so others can be diagnosed in time. As part of their work, Alan Titchmarsh was persuaded to highlight the disease and its danger to gardeners as food recycling and composting grow in popularity.

Aspergillus has evolved drug-resistant strains and is linked with up to 400,000 UK asthma cases a year and 3,600 lung infections. Organs like the brain and kidneys can also be affected.

Karen said: "It's such an unknown condition, people could be suffering for months and not know. We are trying to save lives and stop people getting misdiagnosed and suffering for months."

She continues to work as a horticulturist despite the dangers, but always wears a mask when working with compost

For more information see www.aspergillosistrust.org.uk

Rosebery, Bishops Stortford. Horticulturalist Karen Hook. .Pic: Vikki Lince. (8682994)
Rosebery, Bishops Stortford. Horticulturalist Karen Hook. .Pic: Vikki Lince. (8682994)

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