Roommate's quick thinking likely saved Loyola student with severe meningitis Premed junior recognized classic symptoms in friend

February 26, 1997|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Loyola College senior Richard Galasso might have died from meningitis but for his roommate and friend, a quick-thinking premed student who knew just what to do.

Galasso, 21, awoke before dawn with what James Mallas recognized as the classic symptoms of meningococcal meningitis, which can kill by overwhelming the blood and nervous system with infection in a matter of hours: a stiff neck, a rash, difficult breathing and a flu-like fever.

"I asked Rich if he could touch his chin to his chest," Mallas, 20, a junior biology major from Mountaintop, Pa., said yesterday.

"When he said he felt like he had a weight on his chest and asked if the rash had anything to do with meningitis, I told him the two together meant we'd have to take a trip to the hospital, to put on his shoes and grab a blanket, and I'd go get the car."

It was 5: 30 a.m. Feb. 13. The night before, Galasso and Mallas, both members of Loyola's ice hockey club, had discussed the possibility that Galasso might have the disease. Galasso had been feeling fatigued, as if he had the flu.

"We were joking about it," recalled Galasso, an accounting major from New Jersey who was released from Greater Baltimore Medical Center on Friday and returned to classes this week. "When you're young, you feel invincible."

But Mallas knew from experience that meningitis is serious. His younger brother had had it twice. And a lacrosse player at Ithaca College, where Mallas went to school as a freshman, died of meningitis.

They got to the hospital before daybreak, and "in the nick of time," said a GBMC spokeswoman. Within an hour of arriving at the emergency room, Galasso slipped into a coma that lasted two days.

"The nurses in the ER said that if we had gotten there a couple hours later, Rich's chances would have been greatly decreased," said Mallas.

"It could have easily been fatal," said the chief of infectious diseases at GBMC, Dr. Charles Haile.

When Galasso's parents arrived to see their son that afternoon, they were told by doctors, "Don't be surprised if he doesn't make it," said Galasso.

Mallas was getting a glimpse into what he hopes will be his future profession by donning a mask and gown in the emergency room and keeping watch over his buddy.

Galasso's mother, a nurse in Elmwood Park, N.J., expressed gratitude to Mallas not only for rushing her son to the hospital, but also for doing something a mother would do: making him chicken noodle soup when he first felt ill.

But Janet Galasso said she was unhappy that the Loyola College student health center, which treated Galasso less than 24 hours before he went to the hospital, did not diagnose the disease when he was examined and given a throat culture.

Dr. Oscar M. Taube, who was on duty at Loyola when Galasso came in, said, "When he was examined, he did not have the kind of neck stiffness associated with meningitis and did not have a fever.

"We can't do spinal taps on everybody who comes in with the flu," Taube said. The doctor said that health care workers in "closed communities," such as colleges, are well aware that meningitis can spread more easily in such places than in the general population.

On Friday, a junior cheerleader at Morgan State University, Sheronda Conaway, died in her dorm room of meningitis. She did not have someone like Mallas watching over her.

But Mallas brushes aside talk of being a hero. "I took my sick roommate to the hospital more than anything," he said. "But I hope people know what meningitis means, so what happened at Morgan State won't happen again."

Pub Date: 2/26/97

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