Simple Blood Test May Have Saved North Texas Teen's Life

A North Texas mother is opening up about losing her daughter to a medical condition that could have been detected before it was too late.

Zoey Zalusky, a former McKinney High School student, died two years ago from a rare genetic condition, but her mother, Renee Zalusky, says a blood ammonia test would have helped diagnosed the condition.

"She was a girly girl. She was my shopper and my nail buddy. She was our tech guru, our first one with an iPhone," Zalusky said.

Zoey had just started her sophomore year at University of Arizona, where she was pursuing her dream of becoming a nurse.

"She wanted to be around people and help people. That was my Zoey," Zalusky said.

However, as she got older, she suffered unexplained episodes of nausea and strange behavior.

Her mother remembers one phone call in particular.

"Her texts were just garbled. You couldn't make heads or tails, and she called and was crying and upset that she had missed an assignment. It was a Saturday morning," Zalusky recalled.

Zoey's body was secretly being attacked by a genetic enzyme deficiency in her liver called a urea cycle disorder.

A urea cycle disorder is a genetic disorder caused by a mutation that results in a deficiency of one of the six enzymes in the urea cycle.

These enzymes are responsible for removing ammonia from the blood stream.

In urea cycle disorders, the nitrogen accumulates in the form of ammonia, a highly toxic substance, resulting in hyperammonemia.

Symptoms of high levels of ammonia mimic intoxication, but if ammonia reaches the brain through the blood, it can cause irreversible brain damage, coma and even death.

"I thought she had been drinking. I thought that's what it was," Zalusky said.

Her mother says doctors reached the same conclusion and diagnosed Zoey as being dehydrated.

One month later, days before Christmas of 2015, she received another disturbing call from Zoey.

"She was crying so hard 'cause she felt so terrible. I said, 'I think you need to go to the doctor before you come home.' She said, 'OK.' She said, 'Love you,'" Zalusky said.

It was the last conversation Renee would have with her daughter.

The next day, Zoey was found unconscious on her bathroom floor.

The ammonia buildup had reached Zoey's brain, and left her brain dead.

The Zulanskys decided to donate Zoey's organs, which eventually revealed the cause of death.

The man who received Zoey's liver died from the same enzyme deficiency.

"They had done further testing and they found that he had gotten the OTC deficiency from the liver he got from Zoey, so they wanted to make sure we had all our family tested to make sure no one had it," Zalusky said.

A simple blood ammonia test can diagnose the condition, according to the National Urea Cycle disorders Foundation.

In many cases, the disorder is detected at birth, but the foundation is now advocating for standard blood ammonia screenings in hospital emergency rooms on patients with unexplained stupor and delirium.

Renee Zalusky is helping the campaign by sharing Zoey's story though this video she created for awareness.

Dec. 23 will mark two years since Zoey's death.

"My goal is to just make sure everybody knows what this looks like. It can be mistaken so easily for something else, and it's a really simple blood test," Zalusky said.

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