In June 2014, 10-year-old Xander Cabales fell severely ill after consuming Motrin, a common brand of anti-inflammatory painkiller in the US. Within five days, his health rapidly deteriorated – from being a healthy, active child to one that was fighting for his life. He suffered from a lung collapse, his skin started painfully sloughing off and he went into septic shock.

He had developed Stevens-Johnson syndrome after taking the painkiller.

“Touching his skin was like swiping an iPhone,” his mother, Laura Cabales, said. “The lightest touch would see layers of it come off in your hand. He was blistering, peeling, burning from the inside out. It was devastating.”

Over-the-counter medication caused skin layers to separate and blister

Xander’s ordeal started with a relatively innocuous case of fever, for which Laura and her husband, Ronnie, gave him Motrin. The medication brought down the fever, but returned hours later, worse than before. Xander’s body temperature soared to a dangerous 40.5C, and his discharge exuded from his eyes.

The boy was rushed to the hospital near their home, the Tripler Medical Center Hospital in Honolulu, and was diagnosed with acute respiratory distress syndrome with bacterial pneumonia.

“Doctors said he was the sickest patient they had,” Laura recalled. “He was dying.”

“His skin blistered and burnt and he developed lesions on his body.”

Xander was later transferred to the Kapiolani Hospital for intensive treatment, where he was induced into a coma for three weeks and administered high doses of antibiotics. He gradually responded to the treatment, and one month later, he finally awoke up from the coma – but Xander faced a long road to recovery.

“He could barely lift his head,” Laura said. “He’d loved school, but couldn’t go anymore. He was still in hospital and would beg to be back in class, learning maths, which is his favourite subject.”

Illness left a lasting impact on boy’s life

Three years later, Xander’s health has improved, but he is still recovering.

“It’s been a difficult transition for him,” said Laura. “He doesn’t produce saliva anymore and the tiny hairs on the inside of his lungs have gone. This means he can’t effectively cough and clear any mucus or fluid.”

Having suffered from long-lasting damage to his lungs, Xander also requires the use of a nebuliser three times a day, to help him breathe. His eyesight was also affected, and he cannot expose them to bright light.

“He’s effectively blind, whereas once he had 20/20 sight,” explains Laura. “He is photophobic, so can’t stand bright lights, and needs sunglasses all the time.”

The illness has resulted in an impact that extends beyond Xander’s health. “He’s been bullied for this, but we are full of admiration for our brave boy and think he looks cool,” said Laura.

“As the makers of Motrin products, we are committed to providing consumers with safe and effective over-the-counter medicines. Over decades and millions of uses, ibuprofen has proven safe and effective when used as directed,” said a Johnson and Johnson spokesperson.

“We are sympathetic to the pain and hardships suffered by anyone affected by Stevens-Johnson Syndrome.” MIMS

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