Horrors of meningitis recalled

Parents of victims support vaccination of college students

February 24, 2000|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

A young woman brought her frightening tale of survival to a House committee in Annapolis yesterday.

Kathleen Ashby, 19, was a freshman like any other until the October morning when she woke up with a severe headache. She did not know then that she was about to begin a life-or-death struggle against meningococcal disease, often referred to as bacterial meningitis.

Ashby, her parents and the parents of two young men who died of the disease came to the House Environmental Matters Committee to tell their stories. They spoke in support of a bill requiring Maryland college students living in on-campus dorms to be vaccinated against meningococcal disease, or to sign a waiver.

Del. Mary M. Rosso, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, wrote the bill after learning that a friend of her aide's son had died from the disease.

Yesterday, Ashby took the politicians back to the time when she almost died. It was in the fall of 1998. She went to class one morning at Towson University with a headache but couldn't keep her head up. The people at the health center told her she had the flu. She made it back to her dorm room and passed out.

"I never felt that sick before in my life," she said. "That's when I called my mom."

The bacteria raced through her body. She was nauseated and delirious. She passed out time and again. Her mother took her home, and she passed out in the bathtub.

"I immediately thought to myself, `I might die,' " Ashby said.

Her body was failing, kidneys and liver shutting down, fluid filling her lungs and the sack around her heart. It only got worse.

"I couldn't breathe. I guess " A sniffle stopped Ashby, the memory coming back as she sat in the committee room, the politicians staring at her, waiting for her to go on. "It was just hard for me. Breathing is such a simple thing. These terrible thoughts came to mind."

At the hospital, doctors put her into a drug-induced coma for five days. She had a 20 percent chance of survival. Her parents, Ron and Carolyn Ashby of Arnold, kept a vigil in the intensive care ward.

Last year, a study by the Johns Hopkins University and the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene found that cases of meningitis among Maryland college students living on campus were three times as high as those living off campus.

Four dead since 1997

Since 1997, four Maryland college students have died from meningitis-related disease. Of those students, only one lived off campus.

John and Ginny Gardiner of Frederick lost their son, Jesse, a year ago yesterday. He died in a Cumberland hospital from a blood infection caused by the same bacteria that can cause meningitis.

Jesse was a freshman at Frostburg State University. One day, he came down with flulike symptoms and dehydration. He died less than a week later. He wanted to be a teacher.

Waiver explained

John Gardiner said a waiver sheet, such as the one proposed in the bill, would force parents to consider the value of getting the $60 vaccination. A waiver would stand out in the stack of enrollment forms, loan applications and other papers that come with freshman year.

"I don't know how any parent could not protect their child when the price of a vaccination is the price of a textbook," he said.

Gerard and Effie Case, also from Arnold, lost their son, Gerry, nearly three years ago. He was a Loyola College student, a freshman midfielder on the lacrosse team. The morning after scoring his first goal and first assist, he woke up nauseated. Within 24 hours, he was on a life-support system.

`Never gave up'

"He was a fighter and he never gave up. The physicians at Shock Trauma tried everything they could," said Gerard Case. But the virulent bacteria was unstoppable. "Gerry slipped from our fingers and into the hand of God."

After the hearing, the Ashbys said they would come back to Annapolis whenever necessary to help the bill become law.

"If they want the reason for this, it's right here," said Ron Ashby, wrapping his arms around Kathleen. "Being able to do this. Being able to hug your kid."

The bill is scheduled for a hearing before the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee on March 7.

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