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Touch-and-Go to Triumphant Return

Timing and good instincts carried the day for Bradley Sheffield and two other students who battled an outbreak of meningitis.

The following article was written for and first ran on the San Jose Mercury News.

VACCINES FOR STUDENTS

Santa Clara University is sponsoring three more vaccination clinics for students to receive the second dose of the meningitis B vaccine on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. University and public health officials strongly recommend that all students receive both doses of the vaccine to have the highest level of protection against serogroup B meningococcal disease. Students can now sign up for their appointments at www.scu.edu/cowell.


It started one afternoon with cold sweats. But by the early evening, Bradley Sheffield was vomiting into his dorm room trash can—and could not stop. His neck hurt. He couldn’t think straight. He’d get up and then fall down.

His roommate urged Sheffield to let him call campus security to get help, but Sheffield told him not to worry.

“I thought I had a bad flu—and that the only thing I needed was sleep and time,” he recalled.

And so began a weeklong crisis at Santa Clara University that resulted from a meningitis outbreak that hospitalized Sheffield and another SCU student. Thousands of fellow students then waited in line to receive emergency vaccinations, leaving parents confused and frustrated because they thought their children were already protected from the disease.

For the first time since the outbreak began in late January, Sheffield, his parents and his doctors agreed this past week to speak publicly about the terrifying ordeal.

They said it was a battle that was touch-and-go for at least 72 hours, until the intravenous antibiotics pumped into his body finally gained the upper hand, allowing Sheffield—who spent three days in an induced coma—to open his eyes and breathe on his own.

When the freshman from Phoenix returned to campus last week after two months of recovery, Sheffield, the first SCU student hospitalized in the outbreak, had lost some of his hearing—a common result of bacterial meningitis.

But he knows he was very, very lucky.

Meningococcal disease is a rare but severe bacterial infection of the lining of the brain and spinal cord. It could have left Sheffield with brain damage, learning disabilities, amputated limbs or paralysis. Or even dead.

Sheffield, his parents and physicians said it was a crucial combination of timing and good instincts that carried the day for not only Sheffield, but also the two other male students hospitalized more briefly at San Jose’s O’Connor Hospital during the outbreak.

Neither the Santa Clara County Public Health Department nor Sheffield can pinpoint exactly where he picked up the bacteria. Ten percent of the general population carries the bacteria in their throats, said Dr. George Han, the department’s communicable disease controller.

“For whatever reason,” Han said, “it’s unknown why some people—very few people—come down with the invasive disease.”

What is known is that meningococcal meningitis is spread through the exchange of respiratory and throat secretions, which can occur when people live or sleep in close quarters. It also can spread through kissing, coughing or sharing eating utensils and beverages. Teens and young adults have a higher risk for meningococcal disease, and dormitories and other crowded settings can become dangerous breeding grounds.

Unknown to many parents, the deadly strain of meningitis Sheffield contracted is different from the strains that are prevented by the typical meningitis vaccination that is part of most students’ standard immunization records. So it’s up to doctors to talk about the other, newer vaccine with patients and their parents to help counteract the meningitis B strain of the disease.

One of the three SCU students hospitalized in the outbreak was originally diagnosed with meningitis, but further tests could not confirm the initial results, Han said.

Sheffield said memories of that awful weekend in late January are just starting to return to him.

The tall, lanky 19-year-old who keeps his Globe skateboard handy for ice tea runs to a Starbucks just off campus said he was pledging at the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity and was feeling run down.

After his initial symptoms surfaced on Jan. 30, he felt lucid enough to call his parents about 10:15 p.m. to tell them he didn’t feel well. They agreed to talk again the next morning.

But after they hung up, Tara Sheffield told her husband, Larry, that their son sounded much more worried than normal. Still, both parents said, his reaction might have been due to the fact that it was the first time he had been sick since he went away to school.

“In hindsight, we should have asked more questions, like, ‘Is your neck stiff?””—one of the signs of meningitis, Tara Sheffield said. “But we didn’t know to ask that question.”

Back in the dorm room, as the hours passed, their son grew more confused and unable to talk. With his last ounce of strength, he threw his body onto the foot of his roommate’s bed to get his attention, he recalled. By sunup, his alarmed roommate, Akshaye Pal, phoned campus security, which called an ambulance.

Pal, who had spent much of the night searching the Web for clues to his roommate’s condition, said paramedics thought Sheffield was drunk and relayed that impression to the emergency room staff at O’Connor Hospital.

Dr. Brian McBeth, assistant medical director at O’Connor’s ER, said that he could understand why they might have thought that. But, he said, most intoxicated college students usually get to the ER at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m.—after a night of partying. Sheffield, however, had arrived around 8 a.m., which made the timing unusual, he said.

And he had a burning fever—an indication of an infection. Sheffield also was confused and agitated—so much so that ER staff members had to hold him down and strap him onto a gurney. He was unable to communicate.

McBeth began to suspect meningococcal infection. Then he saw the telltale clue: a rash progressing rapidly all over Sheffield’s body.

The doctor became extremely worried. “I know a significant number of these people do not have good outcomes,” the ER veteran said.

McBeth ordered intravenous antibiotics immediately to stop the progression of the bacteria attacking Sheffield’s body. A spinal tap revealed a milky white spinal fluid; it should normally be clear.

Then McBeth knew for sure it was meningitis. He called Sheffield’s parents, who jumped on a plane to San Jose.

Unlike millions of other parents, they knew a lot about the devastating disease: Their youngest daughter was a first-year student at UC Santa Barbara in 2013 when four students fell ill from a form of bacterial meningitis. Three recovered, but the fourth, a lacrosse player, lost both of his feet.

Larry Sheffield called their son’s roommate “the first hero” for making the call to campus security. McBeth “is the second hero” because even before the results of the spinal tap came back he had already started their son on lifesaving antibiotics.

“As we have learned, time is of the essence—every minute, every second counts,” Larry Sheffield said. “Those extra few minutes could have saved Bradley’s life or stopped any damage.”

He and his wife said they cannot thank everyone enough—including the university for housing them during the two weeks their son needed extended antibiotic treatment before they took him home to Phoenix for weeks of rest and physical therapy.

As for Bradley, who had lost 30 pounds during the ordeal but is now almost back to his 165-pound fighting weight, the experience has made him reflect on the fragility of life.

“You don't think something like this is going to happen to you,” he said. “It’s a miracle there’s not more damage—and a miracle that I recovered so fast.”

VACCINES FOR STUDENTS

Santa Clara University is sponsoring three more vaccination clinics for students to receive the second dose of the meningitis B vaccine on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. University and public health officials strongly recommend that all students receive both doses of the vaccine to have the highest level of protection against serogroup B meningococcal disease. Students can now sign up for their appointments at www.scu.edu/cowell.

Features

SCU President Michael Engh, S.J., greets students during a massive vaccination effort. Photo by Joanne Lee