ValleyCentral spoke with 31-year-old Crystal Villegas, who is currently hospitalized at Valley Baptist Medical Center in Harlingen after she was diagnosed with the rare infection that causes swelling around the brain and spinal cord.
Villegas said she went to get a cosmetic procedure at the now closed River Side Surgical Center in Matamoros on March 15. Approximately three weeks later, she started experiencing abnormally painful headaches. She even asked people online if they had any experience with headaches.
Her husband, Johnny Tapia, told ValleyCentral that she went to the hospital for the headaches, but was originally turned away with a “bad case of migraines.”
One day, he walked in their home and found her nearly unconscious with an extremely high fever. Villegas said it was at this point where she knew she had to go back to the hospital.
“When they did a spinal tap this time around, they confirmed she had meningitis,” Tapia said. “They didn’t know back then whether it was bacterial or viral, but we ended up finding out she had one of the worst ones which is fungal meningitis.”
What is fungal meningitis?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fungal meningitis is a rare, life-threatening fungal infection that causes inflammation of the area around the brain and spinal cord.
“People can get infected during medical procedures if all infection practices are not followed,” the CDC stated.
The CDC announced it is responding to a multinational outbreak among people who had cosmetic procedures in Matamoros. Two clinics, River Side Surgical Center and Clinica K-3, are considered “associated with the outbreak” and were subsequently shut down in mid May.
According to the most recent update from the CDC, seven people have died in connection to the Matamoros outbreak, with an additional nine confirmed cases.
Villegas has three children, an 8-month-old, 3-year-old and 7-year-old.
She also has a large social media following that she built around her fitness lifestyle and offering a helping hand, her husband said.
“She’s the type of person that’s always gone above and beyond for others,” Tapia said.
Villegas said she’s always been an advocate of health and fitness, and was a coach at Orange Theory in Brownsville.
When Villegas went to the River Side Surgical Center, she was joined by her best friend.
“I just went for a cosmetic surgery,” she said. “I went for a fat replacement that I had done here previously 10 years ago.”
Tapia added that a close family relative was at the clinic the same day, coincidentally. When Tapia learned of Villegas’s diagnosis, he urged the woman to get checked as well. She would also develop fungal meningitis. She would soon die of the infection.
“Since we’ve been here we’ve lost several of my close friends,” Tapia said.
He said that his relative was the first to pass, followed by a close friend of his and then most recently Crystal’s best friend who had recommended the clinic to her.
During the interview, Villegas can be seen with a tube coming out of her head that is used to drain fluid and pressure built up from the swelling in her skull.
“I have a slurred speech right now. My eyes aren’t focusing like they used to. My three spots are to the restroom, the bed or to this lounge chair in the hospital. I’m stuck in one room for two months already,” Villegas said.
Tapia said that treatment has consisted of extensive antifungal medication.
Villegas said she has had to relearn how to walk, use the restroom and do basic things on her own.
Holding back tears, Villegas said that she just wants to go home. She said she remains motivated.
“Even though a lot of our friends and family have passed away, I’m going to make it and I’m going to be able to go back home and live a life and raise my kids,” she said.
Villegas’s family set up a GoFundMe page titled “Crystal and her Battle with Fungal Meningitis,” which has since raised more than $8,000.
Tapia is grateful for the support from the community up until this point, but says the medical bills and daycare for the children is becoming expensive.
“It’s to help her fight this,” Tapia said. “I just want her home, the babies want her home.”
Additionally, Tapia urged those interested in going across the border for cosmetic surgeries, to do research.
“Hopefully our misfortune, us going through this, is able to help other people,” he said. “Crystal is a fighter, she’s going to get out of this and with y’all’s support, I know it’s going to help a lot.”
As far as her most recent condition, Tapia said she could have one or two good days, but they may be followed by five hard days. He called her stable and alert, but noted that she remains very weak.
Villegas offered advice to those struggling with their appearance.
“Enjoy life, don’t worry about how you look or anything like that. This whole thing about changing the way we look, it’s not worth it,” Villegas said.