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‘You’re Not Alone’: Meningitis Victims Form Support Group With AM-Surviving the Odds

April 4, 1992

Undated (AP) _ A killer bacteria called meningococcus struck Gerri Stone’s family three times, at intervals of 20 years.

″Lord help me,″ she says. ″I didn’t know it would happen again.″

Now, the 46-year-old Providence, Ky., travel agent leads a group for survivors and families of victims to lend support and to publicize meningococcemia, the illness that develops from the meningococcus organism.

Meningococcus is one of the most common causes of meningitis, an inflammation of the fluid and layers of membrane surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Its symptoms are high fever, headache, stiff neck, nausea and vomiting.

Dr. Lisa Jackson, an epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, says meningococcus strikes about 2,500 Americans each year. Even though there are effective antibiotics to treat it, about 10 percent of those afflicted die.

About 10 percent of the population carries the bacteria in their throats all the time but don’t become ill, Jackson said.

The disease is spread by respiratory secretions, tiny droplets from the nose or mouth.

Mrs. Stone’s infant brother died from the bacteria, as did her 22-month-old son, Bobby Joe, in 1970. Her grandson survived.

Since her son’s death, rarely a day has passed that Mrs. Stone said she hasn’t felt anger and guilt that not enough was known about the meningococcemia and its symptoms.

″It still hurts,″ she said. ″If I had known what it was, maybe he would still be here. It’s hard to live with knowing my son’s in a grave when maybe he could be alive.″

For all these years, even going back to the death of her two-month-old brother Larry in 1950, Mrs. Stone never had talked to anybody else who had had meningococcemia.

″I never could find anybody who had the same disease or anybody to give me any information,″ she said. ″I was thinking I was the only person it happened to. I had no real experience where to look.″

Then, on Thanksgiving Day in 1990, her 16-month grandson’s temperature hit 103 and he began throwing up. As she rubbed his head in the hospital emergency room, she noticed two tiny purple spots on his ear, each no bigger than a period.

″I thought my heart quit me,″ she said. ″It hit me all of a sudden.″

She had seen these symptoms before. Bobby Joe was covered in purple, from hemorrhaging blood vessels, the doctors told her. Forty-five minutes later, he was dead.

After her grandson got out of the hospital, she read of other victims who had been afflicted with meningococcemia. She called one of them, Terri Harding of Waynesburg, Pa., who had lost both of her legs and an arm as a result of the bacteria.

″We both decided what we wanted was a support group and to get information,″ Mrs. Stone said. ″I’ve lived all these years thinking I was the only person it ever happened to. It’s pretty rare.″

The group met for the first time in Pittsburgh in March with 18 people in attendance, including Ms. Harding. The next meeting is scheduled for July.

″It’s helpful to talk to somebody who’s been through the same thing,″ Ms. Harding said. ″You’re not alone.″

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Information on the support group can be obtained by writing Gerri Stone at 718 Maple Street, Providence, Ky., 42450, or by telephoning her at her office, 502-821-0025, or her home, 502-667-5504.

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