A Meningitis Cautionary Tale

Family Health, Featured Article, Healthy Living
on August 8, 2013
Jamie Schanbaum meningitis story.

It was a chilly night in November of 2008 when Jamie Schanbaum, a sophomore at the University of Texas, went over to a friend’s house to take a study break. As the night progressed, Jamie began to feel increasingly unwell. Thinking she was merely coming down with a bad case of the flu, she curled up on her friend’s couch and took a nap. Jamie couldn’t possibly imagine that her illness would soon escalate into a medical nightmare that would ultimately rob her of her limbs—and nearly claim her life.

The following morning, Jamie’s symptoms only got worse. “When I woke up, I was so cold, so weak. I huddled under my blankets, shivering, trying to regain any warmth,” Jamie says. She drove herself back to her apartment, but her strength was so depleted she nearly had to crawl down the hallway. It would be the last time Jamie walked on two feet.

By the time she was admitted to the hospital, Jamie was in grave condition. Nurses, determining that Jamie had contracted meningococcal septicemia, immediately put her on dialysis. “It was very unreal,” Jamie, 24, recalls. “It all happened so quickly.”

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Meningococcal septicemia is a severe blood infection caused by the same bacterium that causes meningitis. It is similar in nature to meningitis, but with more dire consequences: the mortality rate for meningococcal disease is as high as 1 in 10. Furthermore, the disease often saddles its survivors with a number of permanent disabilities, including limb amputation, deafness, kidney damage, brain damage and more.

Jamie survived, but the loss of blood flow allowed flesh-eating bacteria to attack her limbs, necessitating the amputation of her fingers and both legs below the knee. In visceral, excruciating detail, Jamie talks about watching her limbs gradually blacken and harden up before her eyes: “I literally watched my limbs die,” she says. “I saw them turn black. They were hard as a rock,” she remembers.

Seven months and countless surgeries later, Jamie was discharged from the hospital. “I felt like I was reborn, but I was reborn as this frail, fragile little person,” she explains. “But I was lucky just to be alive.”

Refusing to wallow in self-pity, Jamie tackled rehabilitation with a dauntless spirit and unwavering determination. Within three months of being fitted with prosthetic legs, she was walking again. Not long after that, she hopped on a bicycle for the first time since her illness—an “amazing” experience, according to Jamie. “Back when I was in the hospital, I never imagined I would be able to bike again,” she says. “It was definitely a euphoric moment. I was so elated that I cried in my car afterward.”

Jamie Schanbaum

Discovering solace in the sport of cycling, Jamie began participating in competitive racing events and eventually earned a spot on the USA Paralympics cycling team. In 2011, she won a gold medal in the USA Cycling Paralympic Road National Championships. That year, she also competed at the Pan American Games in Guadalajara. “It was quite amazing, really,” Jamie says. “I never in a million years would have anticipated someday being a member of the USA Paralympics Team.”

A tireless advocate for meningitis awareness, Jamie has embarked on a mission to prevent others from needlessly suffering from this preventable disease. “Nobody should have to go through what I went through. It was devastating,” she says. “And what’s even more devastating is to think that it all could have been prevented by a simple vaccine.”

Similar to a cold or flu, meningitis spreads through close physical contact—kissing, sharing utensils, coughing, sneezing, etc. College campuses and schools tend to be breeding grounds for meningitis outbreaks, which is why it’s especially crucial for college students to arm themselves against the disease. “When you’re in college, you tend to act invincible. You take your life for granted,” Jamie says. “You never think that something like this can happen, but it can—and I am here as living proof of that. I could have died.”

In 2012, Jamie helped champion the “Jamie Schanbaum and Nicolis Williams Act,” a bill requiring bacterial meningitis vaccinations for all students enrolling in any Texas college. The act was the collaboration of the Schanbaum family and the Williams family, who lost their son Nicolis to bacterial meningitis in February 2011. She also founded the JAMIE (Joint Advocacy for Meningococcal Information and Education group) Group , which strives to promote awareness of meningitis and its consequences.

“It’s powerful to know that lives are being saved because of you,” Jamie says. “It’s also cool to have a bill named after you and to be a part of history in your own way.”

Extending her influence beyond the Texas border, Jamie travels the nation as a meningitis advocate, speaking to students and doctors alike about the importance of receiving the meningococcal meningitis vaccine. “This disease has given me a purpose, and that’s to save other people’s lives,” Jamie says. “I figure if somebody had come and spoken about this disease to me, I probably would have gotten vaccinated. So I’m just trying to do what somebody could have done for me.”

Jamie Schanbaum

Jamie is currently finishing up her undergraduate career at the University of Texas. The aspiring therapist says that graduate school might be on the horizon, but for now, she is just focused on enjoying her last year of college.

“I just want to have a good time,” she says with a laugh. And if there’s anybody who deserves to do just that, it’s Jamie.