Wounds of meningitis linger, but survivor celebrates life

 
 
Updated 3/4/2012 6:31 AM
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  • Amanda Richter

    Amanda Richter

  • Courtesy of Amanda RichterThis 2002 photograph of college student Amanda Ball of Grayslake recovering from meningitis shows her biggest supporters: parents, Earl and Mary; sister, Jenni; and brothers, Chris and James.

    Courtesy of Amanda RichterThis 2002 photograph of college student Amanda Ball of Grayslake recovering from meningitis shows her biggest supporters: parents, Earl and Mary; sister, Jenni; and brothers, Chris and James.

  • Courtesy of Amanda Richter Standing on her bandaged legs with other members of the Ball family for this Easter photo, Amanda now stands up to spread the word about vaccinations for meningitis.

    Courtesy of Amanda Richter Standing on her bandaged legs with other members of the Ball family for this Easter photo, Amanda now stands up to spread the word about vaccinations for meningitis.

  • Courtesy of Amanda RichterReturning to the University of Iowa for her senior year in a wheelchair, Amanda Ball says she got lots of support from members of her Alpha Chi Omega sorority.

    Courtesy of Amanda RichterReturning to the University of Iowa for her senior year in a wheelchair, Amanda Ball says she got lots of support from members of her Alpha Chi Omega sorority.

  • Courtesy of Amanda RichterWhile in a doctor-induced coma, Amanda Richter says she dreamed that someone tied her down and tried to freeze off her toes. Meningitis attacked her feet, but she avoided an amputations.

    Courtesy of Amanda RichterWhile in a doctor-induced coma, Amanda Richter says she dreamed that someone tied her down and tried to freeze off her toes. Meningitis attacked her feet, but she avoided an amputations.

When strangers see Amanda Richter, the former Grayslake athlete and cheerleader with the red hair and sparkling blue eyes, they often ask, "What's a pretty girl like you doing with a cane?"

Sometimes she smiles and dishes out an innocent lie. The truth involves a rare illness, 18 death-defying days in a coma, wounds that made her legs look like props in a gory zombie movie, teams of doctors and surgeons, a grueling recovery, a life-threatening blood clot, faithful friends, loving family, a devoted boyfriend-turned-husband, and an uncanny strength that allows Amanda and Ryan Richter to spend this weekend fully celebrating what she calls her 10th Life Day.

A finance major at the University of Iowa, Amanda was 20 years old when she left on New Year's Day 2002 for an adventure studying abroad in the city of Cork, Ireland. On the last day of February, she had a cold and a sore throat and was tired from a recent trip to London. She and her flatmates ordered a pizza, and Amanda felt worse.

"I started vomiting, so I just went to bed," Amanda says. "The next thing I remember, it was 1 o'clock in the afternoon."

Her concerned mom had phoned earlier and urged her to go to the hospital with someone.

"I thought she had mono," Mary Ball remembers.

But the illness had ravaged Amanda.

"I couldn't stand up," she says.

Her worried flatmate from Missouri, Kira Blaco, ditched class early to check on Amanda.

"She saved me," Amanda says, recalling how Kira recognized that Amanda showed signs of bacterial meningitis and called an ambulance.

Amanda's father, Earl Ball, a director at Kraft Foods, was working in his office in Northfield when he received the phone call from Ireland.

"The nurse said, 'Your daughter is quite unwell,'" the dad says, learning that Amanda didn't have mono but something called meningococcal septicaemia. He was getting the spelling so he could look it up online when a doctor got on the phone.

"The doctor said she had a 5 percent chance of living through the night. My phone dropped," Earl remembers. The rest of the afternoon was a blur of tracking down his wife, Mary, buying airline tickets on the first flight to Ireland, getting their oldest daughter, Jenni, to return home to care for her little brothers, Chris and James, and spreading the news to relatives, neighbors, friends and Ryan, Amanda's boyfriend since junior year of high school.

"It was just numbing, like it wasn't happening," the mom says, recalling how she told their other kids, "We're going to bring her back, either on the plane or in a box on the plane."

Doctors at University College Cork Hospital put Amanda in a coma for 18 days as they treated her meningitis, which ate away the flesh on her legs and caused failures in every internal organ except her heart and brain. Quick diagnosis and treatment can save more than 80 percent of patients with this form of meningitis, but many still suffer brain damage, amputations, blindness and other devastating disabilities. Vaccines released in recent years can stave off most kinds of meningitis infections.

While her brain recovered within a couple days of awakening, her legs "looked like a chicken wing someone had taken a bite of," recalls Amanda, who lost about 50 pounds from her fit 135-pound frame.

"I remember the first time I saw my legs, as they were always bandaged up. My pale legs with these bright red wounds. All that bone exposed. Oh, it was gross," Amanda says, giving an awkward giggle as she remembers successfully taunting Ryan to "touch my bone."

"I hope to never do that again," laughs Ryan, now her husband of six years and the father of their 2-year-old daughter, Andrea, and a second child due in July.

"I took the one-day-at-a-time approach," says Ryan, a classmate during high school in Grayslake and at the University of Iowa, where he spent that year's spring break at the Irish hospital. "I just wanted to be there for her."

A major surgery to remove a muscle from Amanda's back and transplant it into her leg failed. She flew back to Chicago on April 15 and spent another five weeks and endured more surgeries at the University of Chicago Medical Center before an additional three weeks at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. She returned to the University of Iowa that fall in a wheelchair, wearing an intrusive medical pump that increased blood flow to promote healing while draining unwanted fluids into a bag that Amanda had to change daily. By January 2003, 10 months later, the operations and skin grafts were working.

"It was nice to see the tissue cover over the bones," says Amanda, who didn't know how much she could recover.

"I didn't know if I'd be able to walk down the aisle," she says, recalling her wedding plans. She did walk that aisle, with the support of a parent on each arm.

Today, her legs are scarred and have poor blood flow. One of the two bones in her lower left leg is missing a few inches.

She uses the cane, wears splints on her legs and elevates her feet while working at her desk in Rosemont as a financial manager for World Kitchen, maker of bakeware and other cooking tools and products. She can walk for about 20 minutes before she needs to sit and elevate her legs.

"She's the strongest person I know," says Ryan, a transportation planner for Metra.

"I can't run. I can't jump. There are a lot of things I can't do. I'm OK with that," Amanda says, noting the toughest thing might be explaining to her daughter, "Mommy can't do piggyback rides. Daddy does piggyback."

Her occasional thoughts of "Why me?" yield to her joy at being alive.

"Call it God. Call it luck. I try to focus more on that than why I got it," she says. One thing she can do to celebrate her 10th Life Day is to let others know about meningitis and the vaccines that can prevent the majority of outbreaks.

"It's great that she's doing this and thinking about others to make sure they don't get this," says Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, a member of the committee on infectious diseases for the American Academy of Pediatrics, which is based in Elk Grove Village. Maldonado, a professor at the Stanford School of Medicine, says children need to get a meningitis vaccine at age 11 or 12 and a booster dose five years later. There is no vaccine for Type B, which is the type Amanda got, but researchers are working on that, the doctor adds.

"It happens so fast. It's frightening," Maldonado says about meningitis. With only about 3,000 cases each year in the United States, some people don't understand the need to vaccinate for a disease that isn't often in the news, but vaccinations are key, the doctor says. While the vaccines are credited with a 30 percent drop in meningitis cases among adolescents, "this disease is definitely out there," Maldonado says. "It's not one of those diseases I think we'll ever eradicate."

In addition to the vaccinations, just knowing the symptoms can help prevent a tragedy. Headache, high fever, a stiff neck, fatigue, confusion, nausea or vomiting, and aversion to bright lights can all be signs of meningitis. For more information about meningitis visit the websites for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (cdc.gov/meningitis), the American Academy of Pediatrics (aap.org), the Meningitis Foundation of America (www.musa.org) or the National Meningitis Association (nmaus.org).

"Look out for each other," Amanda says. "If someone gets really sick really fast, just get them to the hospital because you really don't know."

She has little scars on her arms, larger scars on her rear, patches on her thighs where they took skin to graft onto her legs, a long scar on her back where they removed a muscle in that failed attempt to transplant it into her leg. She has an indentation in her thigh.

"The skin here used to be here," she says, pointing to patchy skin on her foot and ankle. She has weird pains every once in a while and will see increased arthritis pain as she ages. But meningitis couldn't take away her smile.

"That's life. You adjust," Amanda says. "I've always been a positive person."

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