He Would Have Been 25: I Lost My Brother to Vaccine-Preventable Meningitis
Editor's Note: This was originally published on So Seattle Mom in November 2013.
Today is my brother's birthday. He would have been 25.
It has been nine years since he died, but sometimes the pain feels as raw as it did the day that it happened. Although time helps heal, there is nothing that can ever take it away. In a matter of two days my brother went from being a healthy teenage boy, to brain dead. Meningitis killed my brother, and by the time we knew what was happening, there was nothing we could do about it.
Occasionally, I think about those two days. The day everything happened, and the day nothing happened. The flashbacks play out in my memories like a movie.
I was a few months shy of 17 and had started my first summer job. My mother called me while I was driving home and told me that Drew was sick and asked me to pick him up some 7-Up. When I got home, my brother was laying in my mother’s recliner, covered with blankets and moaning of a headache. I gave him some medicine and put some frozen peas on the back of his neck, but something seemed off, which still haunts me to this day.
I called my parents and told them that they should come home and take him to the doctor, and that is what they did.
The next thing I remember is waking up to yelling. I was confused. I ran to my parent’s bedroom and found them trying to wake up my brother. I didn't know what they wanted or needed me to do, but I made the decision to call 9-1-1. My body and voice shook, and in the middle of giving the operator our information, my dad yelled for me to help. My dad wanted help moving Drew from their bedroom to our front room. Drew started having seizures. I will spare the details, the ones that play on rerun in my mind, because they are too painful. I had never witnessed a seizure before. I dropped his feet in panic and instantly started crying. For a long time I carried guilt for that, and it took a while for me to share with anybody.
Following the ambulance to the hospital was the longest 10-minute drive of my life. So many questions, no answers.
I don’t remember much between arriving at the hospital that day and being woken up the following morning.
My grandma came to stay with me and my sister while my parents stayed with my brother in the ICU. Sometime early in the morning, my parents called and said that we needed to come to the hospital because they did not think he would make it. Wouldn't make it? He was just fine. He just had the flu. They took him to the doctor and the doctor sent him home! Hours later, they say he isn't going to make it?
Sitting in the hospital that day, it all seemed surreal, like it could not be happening. Not to him and not to us.
I wish I could forget the moment that we found out that he was dead. We were all in a small room, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and my brother and sister. My mother walked into the room with two doctors by her side. My eyes were fixed on her, and my chest was so heavy that I could not breathe. Tears filled her eyes and her voice shook as she told us. I had never felt such pain before. I fell to my knees and started crying. Life can be so unfair.
My parents made the decision to donate his organs, and as a result, Drew was kept on life support even though he was brain dead. His chest was still moving up and down, and he looked like was merely sleeping. I held on to him and wept, kissed his hand and cheek and said goodbye. That was the last time that I ever saw him.
My heart was shattered by losing my brother. My heart was broken even more by watching my parents. Now that I have children of my own, I can't imagine what they went through. I never want to. The very thought of losing one of my babies is nauseating, but my parents live the hellish nightmare every day.
The week following my brother’s death was a whirlwind. There were preparations, visitors, cards, flowers, food, and media. Drew’s death was a hot news topic. Reporters called my cellphone for an interview. A clerk at the local grocery store ask me if I had heard about the Bothell football player who died.
"Yes," I replied. "He was my brother."
My life changed in every way.
My brother was one year, one month, and 15 days younger than me. He died from bacterial meningitis on July 7, 2004 at the age of 15. We believe he contracted meningitis after attending a high school football camp. He was happy, healthy and athletic. He initially showed flu-like systems and died within 48 hours. Even though he was brought to the doctor promptly and meningitis was brought up, there was no spinal tap done and he was misdiagnosed. Every second counts when it comes to meningitis.
I live every day wishing that I had known about meningitis at the time. Meningococcal disease is a very serious but vaccine-preventable bacterial infection. For a long time after his death I carried a tremendous burden of guilt. I knew that something was wrong, but I didn't know what. I asked my parents to leave work early to take him to the doctor, but what if I had been more insistent that something else was wrong? Would he still be alive? I'll never know.
Writing is therapeutic for me, but the main reason I want to share my story is to educate others about meningitis and vaccines. My brother was not vaccinated when he died. The most heartbreaking statement I hear from those opposed to vaccination is that they do not believe that the risks outweigh the benefits. In my brother's case, we paid the ultimate price. Had he been vaccinated there is a chance that he would be alive today. It is not a risk I am willing to take with my children. Knowledge can save lives. If sharing my story, regardless of how personal it is, can spare even one family from going through the continual heartache my family lives with, then it is completely worth reliving the pain.
You can read more about Drew’s story and learn more about meningitis on The National Meningitis Association's website.
Jennifer is a stay-at-home mom to two young children and a very lazy Alaskan Husky. She enjoys hiking, beating her husband at volleyball, baking, dancing with her babies, devouring cheese plates, and drinking Moscato. Born and raised in Seattle, she recently moved back to the area from New York and just started her blog SoSeattleMom.