Painful story tells of deadly, but preventable disease
by Kristan Farlie
It was an exciting time of year for the Clough family of Port Sandfield as they sent their eldest daughter Macey off to her first year of college in September 2004.
They thought of everything to prepare their 19-year-old daughter for leaving home for the first time and to ensure her success.
But on Feb. 26, 2005, Macey’s first year at college came to an abrupt end, and it is a day the family will never forget.
In less than 24 hours from the onset of her symptoms, Macey died from a rare, but very serious disease: bacterial meningitis.
Worst of all, after researching how their daughter died, the Cloughs found out her death could very well have been prevented.
According to the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit (SMDHU), meningitis is an infection of the lining of the brain and spinal cord. There are a number of types of bacterial meningitis, including the most common strain meningitis C, the one Macey contracted, which is caused by a bacterial infection.
The symptoms of meningitis may include: a general feeling of being unwell with fever, severe headache, vomiting, stiffness of the neck, drowsiness or excitement, confusion and irritability. Seizures may also occur, as well as a rash. The SMDHU reports there are less than five cases per year in Simcoe and Muskoka.
Telling the tale of Macey’s death is almost unbearable, but Mary insists it’s the only way to ensure it doesn’t happen to any other family.
Macey was attending Sir Sandford Fleming College in Peterborough and it was one day before she was set to go to Florida with a bunch of friends for reading week. She called her mother at home on Friday morning to say she wasn’t feeling well and wanted to come home, but didn’t feel well enough to drive herself. She had the chills late Thursday night and threw up a few times. So Mary and her husband Harv drove to Peterborough, arriving at the school around 11:30 a.m.
Macey was looking pale, just like she had the flu, said Mary. “I drove Macey in her car back to Bracebridge while she slept most of the way in the passenger seat. When we arrived in Bracebridge around 2:30 p.m., I asked Macey if she was able to drive herself home. I had a meeting to attend and that I would meet her at home later,” explained Mary.
“Macey drove to our home in Port Sandfield, about 30 minutes, and went to bed,” said Mary, adding that Cassey, their youngest daughter, arrived home from school at 3:45 p.m. and checked on Macey and asked if she needed anything. Macey said “no” and went back to sleep.
“When my husband got home, he checked on Macey around 5 p.m. to see if she needed anything and asked how she felt,” Mary continued. “She said she didn’t need anything, but said that she felt really awful.
“I arrived home around 6 p.m. and unpacked the car of groceries and then checked on Macey. She was asleep and I woke her up because she had thrown up on the carpet and I asked her if she needed a drink and/or a bucket. She looked dazed like she had no idea what I was talking about. I knew something was wrong so I called 911,” remembered Mary.
The ambulance got to the house around 6:45 p.m. and took Macey to South Muskoka Memorial Hospital, where they discovered that Macey had a serious form of bacterial meningitis. They worked on her with everything they could, trying to stabilize her enough to go down to St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.
The ambulance left Bracebridge around 12:30 a.m. and got Macey to St. Mike’s as soon as they could. Mary explained that she and her family then left to go home and would rest for about 30 minutes before heading to St. Mike’s at 1:30 a.m. “When we arrived at St Mike’s hospital we were escorted upstairs where Dr. Bill Hemens, the ER physician from Bracebridge, told us our daughter Macey didn’t make it. He told us they did all they could.
“We took our daughter into the hospital with what we thought was a bad case of the flu and then we were told that she’s gone. We didn’t know anything about meningitis. So I had to find out what it was. I had to find out what our daughter died of,” said Mary.
“How, where or when Macey contracted meningitis, we don’t know,” added Mary. “She felt fine the night before. I talked to her Thursday night and she was fine. She was in a dorm with five other girls and no one else got it.”
The deeper Mary investigated, the more frustrated and angry she got. Mary soon realized Macey’s death could have been prevented by a simple vaccination.
“How many parents send their kids off to college, make sure they are organized and have everything they need?” said Mary. “I’ve always taken care of vaccinations. This wasn’t something that we were aware of. Why didn’t they (health-care providers) suggest the meningitis vaccine to us and other parents and their kids, especially when they are going off to school. We didn’t know it was available.
“No one told us that Macey should have had a meningitis shot before going off to college. The meningitis shot should be part of the vaccine regimen for our teens going off to college and university as the risk for this disease increases in those environments. Sadly this is not the case.”
Donna McCarthy, a registered nurse in the vaccine preventable disease program with SMDHU, said it is not uncommon to see meningitis outbreaks in university and college students because they are living in close quarters in residence buildings. The bacteria that cause meningitis are carried in the nose and throat. It is spread by coughing, sneezing, sharing items such as food, lipstick, drinks, cigarettes or other items that have come in contact with the saliva of an infected person.
It has been only four years since the provincial government has funded the Meningococcal C Conjugate vaccine for certain age groups, said McCarthy. It is available to children at 12 months, and again to children in Grade 7, she added.
“The program at Grade 7 is a catch-up because these kids have not had the opportunity to have that vaccine,” said McCarthy. “And we have given it in high school as well, if the kids have missed it in Grade 7, for whatever reason.”
The Meningococcal C Conjugate vaccine is only good to protect against the C strain of the disease. Other strains include A, B W-135 and Y. McCarthy said there is no vaccine available yet for B, but a new vaccine came on the market in January called Menactra, which covers A, C, Y and W-135. It is not publicly funded yet; however it can be purchased after receiving a doctor’s prescription.
McCarthy does add that even though the government provides the C vaccine, it is still just an option for families.
“We have the vaccine available, it is a preventable measure,” said McCarthy, adding the vaccine is about 90 per cent effective. “It does come very highly recommended.”
While Mary and her family have already been vaccinated against the C strain, she said they have also received the Menactra vaccine as well.
“I wasn’t given the choice of whether I wanted the vaccine for my Macey, and that I am angry about,” said Mary. The more information parents have, the more informed they will be when that immunization form comes home with their children from school, she added.
“So much of this is flu and that’s what we thought. It’s quite common for people to be sent home because it is thought that it is the flu, and it’s not,” said Mary.
“You figure you have all your t’s crossed and your i’s dotted,” said Mary. “Macey was such a wonderful girl and she had a heart of gold. Macey wanted to be a teacher and was so looking forward to working with children.
“I wish somebody had been there to tell us about this horrible disease. So if I can help some mom and dad to not go through this, no parent or sibling should have to endure this pain,” said Mary.
And that is exactly what she is setting out to do, to pass on the knowledge that she has learned from this horrible experience.
Mary said that Macey’s younger sister Cassey said it best.
“Macey always wanted to be a teacher, and now it is up to us.”
More information on meningitis is available at the SMDHU website www.simcoemuskokahealth.org, or on the website for the Meningitis Research Foundation of Canada www.meningitis.ca.