Meningitis victims face long, uncertain recovery

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On Sept. 27, her legs and arms grew numb. The numbness flowed upwards to her waist. That’s when she called 911.

“I didn’t know whether I was getting ready for a stroke,” she said.

When she arrived at the hospital, doctors took a spinal tap and discovered she had meningitis.

Health officials have noticed that the sickest patients with meningitis are those who either did not catch the symptoms early or who didn’t receive appropriate treatment early because doctors didn’t know what they were dealing with. The fungi become harder to kill once they have established themselves in a person’s body.

“If treatment is given early, it is very effective,” said Dr. David Reagan, medical officer for Tennessee, where the outbreak was first detected. “If it is given late, it is not very effective.”

Most of the positively identified cases are caused by Exserohilum rostratum (ex-sir-oh-HY-lum ross-TRAH-tum). The fungus is commonly found in the environment, but it has never before been observed as a cause of meningitis.

Because of that, Reagan said, officials have been unable to firmly establish the incubation period and give those who received the tainted injections a date for when they will no longer need to worry about developing meningitis.

“We’re saying at least six weeks, or 42 days, but we probably will extend that,” he said. “This is new territory. There’s no literature to tell us how long.”

In York’s case, doctors initially thought she had bacterial meningitis, but when she told them about the steroid shots, doctors began to assemble a theory. On Sept. 25, the New England Compounding Center had voluntarily recalled three lots of the steroid methylprednisolone acetate.

York’s three shots were that steroid _ and the Marion Pain Clinic had gotten some of the tainted medicine, health officials said.

York said a doctor from Marion Pain Clinic visited her in the hospital and told her about the contaminated shots. The doctor was crying as she spoke, York added.

York passes her days by talking on the phone to two children and three grandchildren who live out of state, receiving visitors from her church and reading the Bible.

She’s lost more than 10 pounds in the past month. She realizes she’s not the woman she once was; now she’s pale and weak whereas before, she liked to put on a little makeup, fix up her short brown hair and go for a walk. The only time she has walked since Sept. 27 was to shuffle to the shower on Oct. 17.

“I got to shampoo my hair and the whole nine yards,” she smiled. “I enjoyed it tremendously.”

York is worried about whether the meningitis will have lasting effects on her body, and she’s concerned about the powerful anti-fungal medication she’s taking. Doctors have had to pause the treatment because they were concerned about her liver and kidney.

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