Finding the blessings in a parent’s nightmare
By Lori Buher
August is National Immunization Awareness Month (NIAM). The CDC recommends several vaccines during adolescence and I support all of them – but my focus here is meningococcal prevention.
The MenB vaccine, which protects against the B strain of the disease, was not available in 2003, when my son was attacked by this dreadful disease. As a way to mark NIAM and more specifically, Preteen and Teen Vaccination Week, I wanted to tell Carl’s story again.
Though it’s been 15 years since Carl was stricken, the memories of those days and weeks live with us still. For those of you who are not familiar with meningococcal disease, also known as bacterial meningitis, it presents with symptoms that mimic flu.
That is exactly what we thought Carl had come down with 15 years ago. His vomiting, lethargy, body ache, and fever were all symptoms associated with flu. When the distinctive purple rash appeared, we knew it was something different and immediately took him to his doctor.
Tragically, meningitis victims are sometimes misdiagnosed, and death can occur in 24 hours if they don’t receive treatment. Carl’s doctor recognized the rash and immediately called an ambulance to take him to the hospital. By this time, about 18 hours had elapsed since he’d begun vomiting. His organs were shutting down and he was airlifted to Seattle Children’s Hospital. My husband, Curt and I followed in our car. When we arrived, we were met by a hospital social worker who had been called in to help us prepare for Carl’s death.
Carl’s heart stopped three times while he was in the helicopter on the way to Seattle. It stopped again the next morning. But each time, he was revived. He beat the odds and did not die.
We spent the next six months at Children’s Hospital and at Harborview Medical Center. Carl underwent 11 surgeries – including the amputation of both his legs below the knee and three of his fingers. The skin on his arms and legs was destroyed and multiple skin grafting operations were also required.
While we were spending all our time in the hospital, we were inundated with support from our Washington State community.
There were fundraisers to help with the bills, cards, letters and visits to bolster our spirits. Cookies, smoked salmon, and even homemade soup were delivered to the hospital – and the medical staff loved us.
We will never forget the generosity and love given to us during that difficult time and we have hundreds of stories about the kindnesses of friends and strangers alike.
Because Carl was in a wheelchair then, our Victorian home that Curt had restored years earlier was not accessible or adaptable to wheelchair life. We were forced to sell it, and Curt found our new home just days before we were to come home with Carl.
When he was finally able to return to school, it was a slow adjustment for Carl – he took just one class per day at first. His teachers continued to visit him at home, as they had visited him in the hospital. Despite losing so many months of school, he caught up with his class.
Over his high school years, Carl endured more surgeries, rehabilitation, and healing – and he also learned how to use his prosthetic legs.
No one was prouder of him than the staff, students, and families of La Conner High when he walked across the stage as co-valedictorian on graduation night.
Carl went on to attend and graduate from Gonzaga University. He is currently employed as a civil engineer and married to Anna Sullivan, whom he met his first day at Gonzaga. We are so lucky that he survived and thrived, but it could easily have gone the other way. Before this happened to us, I could never have imagined anything so frightening.
I encourage everyone to make sure to stay up-to-date with all of their vaccines and make sure that their pre-teen and older adolescent children get all their doses of both types of meningococcal vaccines so that other families don’t have to endure what we went through.
Please visit Immunize.org or CDC.gov for the most up-to-date vaccination information.
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