By JENNIFER MEIER
THE GOSHEN NEWS
“You would never think to ask, ‘Is this drug safe? Has it been approved by the FDA,’” said Tracy Klemm. “In this day and age you expect a drug to heal you or make you feel better.”
And that’s exactly what Tracy expected when she took her daughter Karissa to OSMC Out Patient Surgery Center in Elkhart on Sept. 26 for a steroid injection to relieve constant back and leg pain.
“It was the fifth injection she had received, the second from OSMC,” Tracy said. “We really don’t know why the pain started. It may have been caused when she was jumping on a trampoline, but there was no accident. Karissa just said a day later how much her back and leg hurt.”
A day after the steroid injection, Tracy’s sister-in-law called and asked her if she’d seen the news. The next day, OSMC called and confirmed some potentially devastating news — 16-year-old Karissa may have been exposed to fungal meningitis through a tainted batch of steroids.
“They (OSMC) told us what to look out for, what symptoms to watch for,” Tracy said. “If we saw those symptoms, they wanted me to check her into Elkhart General Hospital.
From the time the shot was given, Karissa’s head began to hurt.
“It was just getting worse. I started feeling nauseous,” Karissa said. “My whole body was achy, kind of like the flu.”
By Oct. 11, when she began to feel stiffness in her neck, Tracy decided it was time to head to the hospital. To find out if she had contracted the possibly fatal, though non-contagious disease, Karissa had to undergo a spinal tap.
“The actual spinal tap wasn’t as bad as I thought,” Karissa said. “Afterwards it hurt a lot. There’s less fluid and that gives you a terrible headache.”
Within the hour the results showed that Karissa had tested positive for the disease.
“Wow! I was trying to stay calm for her sake,” Tracy said. “But I was starting to freak out. No one was very forthcoming with information.”
At first, doctors were not sure exactly where to admit Karissa.
“Should she go to the pediatric section or go in with the other half dozen or so patients who had also tested positive?” Tracy remembered. “Apparently she is the youngest fungal meningitis patient in the country. In the end, they decided to admit her into ICC (Intensive Critical Care) with the other meningitis cases.”
Karissa was given several antibiotic and antifungal medicines.
“I slept a lot and the medicine made me feel weird,” Karissa said. “You just don’t feel like yourself.”
She spent over a week in the hospital.
“There were no at home treatment options at first,” Tracy said. “But finally the Center for Disease Control approved one.”
Karissa, still far from well, arrived home on Oct. 20. On Oct. 31 she headed back to her classes at Northridge High School.
“It was horrible. I mean it was great to see my friends, but by the time first block was over, I was ready to go home,” Karissa said. She only made it through three hours of school.
Since that time she has not stayed for an entire day of classes and remained home Nov. 2 and 5 because she felt too sick.
Every Thursday, Karissa and her mom head to the hospital for blood work that checks her liver and kidney functions and every other Tuesday they meet with a doctor at the Center for Infectious Diseases in South Bend.
“I’m learning that handling this is a learn-as-you-go experience for the doctors, too,” Tracy said. “They don’t know how long she has to be on the medicines. She will be taking them for at least three months, maybe more. There’s no testing to find out when that should stop. You can’t keep giving patients spinal taps.”
Tracy feels like the school staff has worked closely to help Karissa keep up to date on her studies, but thinks she could get behind easily with the amount of time she needs to rest and the many hours she doesn’t feel well enough to concentrate on school work.
“I seem to forget things I wouldn’t normally forget,” Karissa said. “I’m tired of feeling bad.”
Karissa said she is grateful for the friends who visited her at the hospital and now at home. Tracy said she would like to hear from others who contracted the disease to find out how they are coping and how the medicines are working for them.
“To think — she could have died from this,” Tracy said. “We’re hoping the good days will come more often. I can’t wait for her to be back to her bouncy self.”
It’s been a rough year for the Klemm’s. A bill for a 10-day hospital stay won’t be the only expense for the Klemm’s. The medicines that Karissa is required to take could cost $4,000 per month. Tracy’s 15-year-old son Alex recently had his tonsils removed and a water pipe broke in their new home of eight months and flooded the main level.
“I guess if you could say one good thing, it has brought us all closer together,” Tracy said.
To date the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have 419 confirmed cases of fungal meningitis in 19 states, with 30 reported deaths. There are 52 cases in Indiana with four reported deaths. In addition to OSMC in Elkhart, the tainted steroids went to clinics in Columbus, Evansville, Fort Wayne, South Bend and Terre Haute. The steroids came from the New England Compounding Center in Framingham, Massachusetts.
On behalf of her daughter, Tracy has filed a lawsuit against the drug manufacturer. At least six other Elkhart OSMC patients have also filed lawsuits.