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UNPROTECTED PEOPLE: Stories of
people who have suffered or died from vaccine-preventable diseases
ORDINARY COLLEGE STUDENT SHARES HORROR OF
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The following story was originally published in the
December 1, 1999, edition of THE COLLEGIAN as "Ordinary College Student Shares Horror of
Meningitis," by Ryan Hockensmith, who was then a senior at Penn State majoring
in journalism and a staff writer for THE COLLEGIAN. His story is reprinted with permission from the newspaper.
The doctor was squeezing my toes hard. I could see his face clench up as he went from toe to toe, tightening two
fingers around each of the toes on my left foot.
To my horror, in the most excruciating few seconds of my life, I didn't feel
anything. It's hard to express in words how I felt at that moment, how it feels to
have someone grab a part of your body and not feel anything. It's terrifying.
That was the end result of my three-week battle with meningococcal meningitis, a form of meningitis that claims
[many] of its victims.
I'm alive and well now, two weeks into a long recovery process. I will lose only
those four toes I had no feeling in.
But I look back now and wonder, why me? How did it happen?
I was the normal, everyday Joe College Student. I slept the same amount as you. I ate the same, terrible, Taco
Bell-heavy diet as you. I drank two or three times a week, but never a ridiculous amount. I didn't do drugs and I
didn't sleep around. Yet I came down with a deadly disease.
Here's my story:
I contracted the virus in late October before really getting nailed with it while
covering the Penn State-Illinois football game for the Collegian on Oct. 30. I
developed a terrible headache during the game, and my symptoms eventually got so bad I made a trip to an
Illinois hospital that evening.
After receiving some medication and subsequently being released, despite a small rash beginning to break out and
my migraine-like headaches, I returned to the hotel that night. I actually felt well enough to hop in the car the
following morning for the 12-hour trek from Champaign-Urbana to State College.
The Illinois hospital never tested me for meningitis. I had no idea I was 12
hours away from a fight for my life.
We had driven for about an hour before my ankles started to ache. After two hours, they were throbbing. After four
hours, I began to grit my teeth in agony. As seven, eight and nine hours of driving elapsed, I slowly felt my feet
leaving me as the pain grew.
By the time the we pulled into my apartment parking lot, I desperately wanted
someone to cut my feet off. That's how bad the pain was. My feet hurt so badly I can remember
having to choke down my own vomit as I was carried into my apartment.
My roommates and Collegian friends recognized something was seriously wrong with me, and immediately called for an
Within minutes, an emergency medical team hauled me to Centre Community Hospital, where I was quickly diagnosed
with some form of meningitis.
I underwent a variety of hideous tests I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy or even a Pittsburgh student. Doctors
jabbed a large needle into the middle of the back for a spinal tap. A doctor took two separate needles and
punctured each of my ankles to take samples.
By this point, my ankles hurt so badly I was sobbing and screaming in the emergency room for about an hour.
I gave the nurse and doctor two options: cut my feet off or give me lots of pain
medication. To my dismay, they refused to do either.
Pain medication could not be given because meningitis moves rapidly
through the body and often makes a mad dash for the brain. To ensure the virus hadn't taken over my
nervous system, doctors would not give me medication that could cloud my thinking and prevent them from getting a
clear read on the state of my brain.
So I lay there and writhed in pain, grabbing my girlfriend
Lori's hand and screaming. I knew something terrible had gotten into my body. I knew
something bad was in there, like when I had food poisoning. But there was nothing I
could do but wait.
Now I lay there waiting, but I knew this time was much, much more serious than when I ate that bad cheeseburger. I
remember clearing the pain out of my head for just a few seconds to truly contemplate death, for I honestly felt
that was a reality. And it was.
Eventually the Centre Community Hospital doctors decided to use Life Lion, an emergency helicopter, to transport me
to Hershey Medical Center.
By the time I was loaded onto Life Lion late Sunday night, I had lost consciousness.
From that time until the following weekend, my family, girlfriend and friends
went through the spectrum of emotions as I fought for my life. My mom, dad and
girlfriend spent almost that entire first week at the hospital, sleeping on the
floor of the waiting room or at my side.
They struggled Monday as my kidneys and respiratory system failed, forcing doctors to put me on a respirator. They
huddled together and cried for joy on Tuesday when I was upgraded to critical but stable condition.
Then they continued to smile Wednesday as signs of improvement continued, only to be dashed apart by a
disastrous Thursday in which a potentially fatal heart murmur developed.
Finally, after being completely unconscious and on a respirator for nearly a
week, I completely awakened Friday and began to breathe by myself.
By Saturday afternoon, I actually was able to witness Penn State's 24-23 heartbreaking loss to Minnesota.
I spent two more weeks in the hospital, including a week in rehabilitation where I learned to walk and use my hands
all over again.
After three long weeks, I finally came home Nov. 19, just in time for the most
meaningful Thanksgiving of my life.
Every day, I change the bandages on my feet and must look at the four charcoal black toes on my feet. I peel the
gauze and medicated pads off, and with them come pieces of skin and ooze as my body heels over in the
aftermath of this terrible disease.
It is truly gruesome, and I go through it everyday. My body is healing, but I
have to watch it fall apart first, not to mention the four toes that I must have
removed next month.
Meningitis only attacks a minuscule percentage of people every year, but a high percentage of those are college
students. I am now a part of that statistic.
If I had spent $75 and gone to Ritenour for a meningitis vaccine like I should
have last year, I wouldn't have to look at my body and nearly cry every day.
Please make the most of your opportunity to avoid what happened to me. From 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursday in the
Alumni Hall, go get this vaccine.
The price is steep and all shots stink. But the one thing that makes this entire
ordeal worth it for me is to hear people say they got the shot. Please get it.
Copyright 1999 by THE COLLEGIAN. Please direct requests for permission to reprint this story to THE COLLEGIAN at
123 S. Burrowes St., University Park, Pa. 16801-3882, or visit the website at
click on "Contact Us."
ABOUT THE "UNPROTECTED PEOPLE" SERIES:
The Immunization Action Coalition (IAC) has published this story for the purpose of making it available for our
readers' review. We have not verified the story's content, for which the author is solely responsible. The views
reflected in this story are the writer's and do not necessarily reflect the position of IAC.
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