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Using Trauma to Educate

by Published on
photo courtesy Aaron Foreman
Jamie Schanbaum

At first, Jamie Schanbaum thought she had the flu. In November 2008, she was a healthy, 20-year-old freshman attending the University of Texas at Austin. Out of nowhere, while staying at a friend’s apartment, Schanbaum began to vomit and suffer from chills. As she walked across her friend’s apartment, the cold tile floor felt like needles. She went home the next morning and wrapped herself in a blanket and fell asleep. A few hours later, her sister arrived. She’d become alarmed because Schanbaum hadn’t answered the phone. By the time they reached the emergency room, Schanbaum could no longer walk.

It turned out that she had contracted meningococcal septicemia, a form of deadly bacterial meningitis that inflames the membranes of the brain and spinal cord. The disease left her severely debilitated and in the hospital for seven months. The loss of blood circulation led to a second devastating attack, from  flesh-eating bacteria. “I watched my limbs turn from dark purple to black in a matter of days,” she says.

Doctors struggled to save her life with treatments inside an oxygen-rich hyperbaric chamber that stimulates skin growth. She underwent multiple surgeries and painful skin grafts. Doctors were forced to amputate her legs below the knees, along with most of her fingers.

A meningococcal vaccine could have prevented her ordeal. Most states, including Texas, didn’t require students to get the vaccine. Meningitis, spread by coughing and sharing food, often flourishes in close quarters like college dormitories.

In 2009, Schanbaum, along with her mother Patsy and her brother Nicholas, lobbied state lawmakers to pass a bill requiring the vaccination of freshmen university students living on campus. Beginning with this year’s fall term, first-year college students were required to have the meningitis vaccination.

Now Schanbaum is back at UT studying to become a counselor. She attends weekly physical therapy sessions and is learning to walk again with prostheses. It wasn’t long ago, she says, “that all hope was gone.” Now she’s focused on the future. She frequently speaks to media and at public forums to promote meningitis awareness. “Before I got sick, like most people, I had no idea this disease existed,” she says. “Now I do all I can to educate people.”  

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.