There’s a saying that “what you don’t know won’t hurt you. It’s not true. What I didn’t know hurt me. It cost me the life of my son. My story begins on March 25, 1998.
It was the day our son, Evan, called from college to tell us that he had a migraine headache. Evan was 20 years old, a college junior and honor student, and a pitcher on his college baseball team at Georgia Southwestern University. He complained of a horrible headache, the worst headache he’d ever had, and was nauseated. He said he couldn’t hold anything down. He said that the light in his dorm room hurt his eyes. Evan had never had a migraine before, but migraines do run in the family, so we weren’t overly alarmed. By dinnertime, Evan was still feeling awful. We told him to get one of his friends to take him to the emergency room. The ER physician told us that Evan had a little virus. The hospital had decided to keep Evan overnight so that he could have a quiet night to get more rest.
My husband and I were making arrangements to take Evan home for the weekend. Then a doctor called and told me that Evan had meningococcal meningitis and was in critical condition. When you get a phone call like this, your mind can’t even absorb what you’re being told. I knew so little about meningitis, that when the doctor said that it was bacterial, I thought that was the better type to have. I thought, well, at least there were antibiotics. I didn’t realize that bacterial meningitis, especially the meningococcal meningitis that Evan had, was much more deadly. Without a cell phone, we didn’t know if Evan would still be alive when we drove the three hours to the hospital.
He was covered with the telltale purple rash. He could barely speak; he was so tired. He told us that it took every ounce of energy he had just to roll over. We were told that the next 24 hours were critical. My husband and I started the countdown. One hour down, 23 more to go. After a few hours, the doctors decided to transfer him to a larger hospital about 40 miles away, better equipped to handle bacterial meningitis. As he was taken to the ambulance, I said, “Love you, Evan.” As weak and sick as he was, he said, “Love you, Mom.” Those were the last words he said to us.
When Evan arrived at the hospital in Albany, Georgia, he was put on a ventilator and put into a drug-induced coma. It wasn’t long before his kidneys shut down, then his liver and lungs, and eventually affecting all of his organs. His fingers, his toes, his ears, his nose, all turning black. Then his entire hands were black; then his entire feet; and the gangrene kept spreading up his limbs.
Evan’s arms were amputated above the elbows and his legs above the knees. We had to sign consent forms allowing the doctors to amputate as much as was necessary to save his life. We had no choice; we would do anything to save Evan. Several days later, Evan suffered 10 hours of grand mal seizures. The seizures caused irreversible brain swelling. Evan was brain-dead. This son of ours, loved more than we can put into words, had to be disconnected from the machines that were keeping him alive…had to be put into a body bag in front of our eyes.
After Evan died, we found out to our astonishment that a vaccine was available, a vaccine that would have saved Evan’s life. Not a new vaccine, but one used very successfully and safely by the military to control meningitis outbreaks for over 30 years. If we had known about this vaccine, Evan would have received it and Evan would be here today.
I have dedicated my life to prevent this from happening to other families. I am one of the founders of the non-profit foundation, the National Meningitis Association, www.nmaus.org. Right now, the CDC recommends meningococcal immunization for all adolescents 11-12 years old, with a booster dose at age 16. For adolescents who are first vaccinated between 13 and 15 years of age, a booster dose is recommended 5 years after the first dose through age 21. Meningococcal vaccination is also recommended for other people at increased risk for meningococcal disease, including college freshmen living in dormities.
We have the ability now to prevent this from happening to others. Please don’t let this happen to your child or any child. Immunize and protect your loved ones. There is no getting over the loss of a child. It’s a wound with a scab that never completely heals. Let us all work together to save our children.
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