Learn about Jamie Schanbaum's near-fatal battle with meningitis, and the importance of getting vaccinated.
My battle with meningitis began in the fall of 2008, during my freshmen semester at the University of Texas (UT) in Austin. As number four in a line of siblings who attended UT, I thought my path was set, and I was eager to soak it all in.
I didn’t even get to enjoy a single full semester.
In November of that year, I contracted meningococcal disease, sometimes referred to as meningitis. Today, my mom describes this potentially-fatal condition as a hurricane. “You get very short notice that it’s about to strike,” she says. “And when it does, it levels the whole town, so that you have to spend months or years cleaning up the mess.”
I can’t think of a better analogy. In 24 hours, I went from feeling completely healthy, to feeling like I had the flu, to feeling too sick to move, to lying in a hospital bed, literally fighting for my life. At one point, I was given a 20 percent chance of survival. For seven months, I stayed in the hospital in recovery, ultimately losing 80 pounds, as well as all my fingers and both legs.
Since leaving the hospital, with my life forever changed, the road to recovery has been about finding positivity in both the big and small. We are incredibly adaptable as human beings, and while things like brushing my hair or putting on makeup were difficult at first, within time I was able to become fully independent again. One upside to prosthetics is that you get to choose your height. I was 5’2” when I started my semester at UT. Now I’m 5’8”!
In a broader sense, I find positivity in the fact that I still consider myself one of the lucky ones. Meningitis is one of the fastest-killing diseases, sometimes taking a victim’s life within 24 hours. One in 10 of those who contract it will die, and one in five will suffer lifelong disabilities. I’m lucky to have survived, and I’m lucky to have had the help I did – both from the incredibly talented medical professionals, as well as my friends and family who supported me through the recovery process, mentally, physically and emotionally.
I’m here today, sharing my story, because no one needs to go through what I did. I walked onto campus 10 years ago having never heard of meningitis or its potentially deadly consequences, just as thousands of students will walk onto campus in the coming weeks. My message to them is “DO NOT take any chances.” Although uncommon, there is a peak in incidence of meningococcal group B (or Meningitis B) among 18-to-20-year olds, with an increased risk of disease among college students, and college campuses are breeding grounds for the disease, due to the way it is spread through close human contact.
There are two types of vaccines that help the five types of preventable meningitis, including the one I had (Type C). Call your doctor and ask for your vaccine records to you have both. I’m lucky to have survived my experience, but I’ve met many families of others who weren’t as lucky.
Lastly, to the researchers who continue to look for ways to fight meningitis, I want to say “thank you.” These scientists are in one of the few professions in which success occurs when nothing happens, because we only notice disease when we get sick. As a result, I don’t think we say thank you enough to these unsung superheroes in our society. They’ve taken their education, hard work and talent and put it to use protecting us – that deserves a massive amount of gratitude.
Jamie Schanbaum is a meningitis survivor, patient advocate and spokesperson on behalf of GlaxoSmithKline.