Student shares his meningococcal B story

LBCC student Aaron Ojeda walking across campus. Ojeda lost his legs and parts of his fingers due to a Meningococcal B infection in 2014. Ojeda is currently a third year graphic design student at LBBC, and pursues his passion of DJing during this free time.

Avalon Kelly and Melanie Reese, News Contributors

Aaron Ojeda had legs, eight fingers amputated after contracting menB.

“The virus kills you within 24 hours if you don’t get help, so if you don’t get help within the 12th hour then you definitely lose limbs—and I got hospitalized around the 16th hour,” Aaron Ojeda, a third-year graphic design student at Linn-Benton Community College said, regarding the effects he endured from getting meningococcal B in 2014.

After contracting meningococcal B, Ojeda had to have doctors amputate both of his legs, as well as eight of his fingers due to the effects of the disease.

“I was in shock. My consciousness had cleared. I just didn’t connect the dots; I just saw that I was in the hospital,” Ojeda said. “I got eight of my fingers amputated as well and they were black from the lack of blood supply. It freaked me out because I didn’t know what was going on. And I couldn’t feel my legs or wiggle my toes or anything. I was really confused.”

Ojeda woke up in the hospital on June 10, 2014 to find that a week had passed since he had last remembered falling asleep in his own bed.

“I had had a fever (the night of being hospitalized), and I was nauseous—I was throwing up. I had diarrhea like crazy. My mind was clouded up as well and I just felt really sick. I think I had a fever of 105,” Ojeda said. “It’s pretty gnarly because I don’t remember anything. I just kind of went to sleep and woke up in the hospital.”

Meningitis is defined by Mayoclinic.org as an inflammation of the membranes surrounding your brain and spinal cord. The most common meningitis cases in the U.S. are viral infections and bacterial infections.    

“I think I got a spider bite that triggered the fever and that activated the Meningitis in my nasal passage. Because my foot had started hurting really badly and I couldn’t walk on it,” Ojeda said. “That was definitely hours before I was hospitalized.”

According to Charlie Fautin, deputy director of the Benton County Health Department, meningitis is an opportunistic disease.

“We know that this bacteria lives in the nose and throat of a healthy person and can then infect someone who is susceptible,” Fautin said.

Healthy individuals who harbor the meningococcal bacteria without showing symptoms are known as carriers, according to Fautin. People most vulnerable to actual, symptomatic infection include those with underlying immune system deficiencies such as autoimmune diseases or recent transplants.

Another group of people especially vulnerable to meningitis are smokers, Fautin added. The bacteria is transmitted via oral secretions,and smokers already have chronically inflamed respiratory symptoms, making them ideal victims of the disease.

World Health Organizations lists meningitis symptoms to be a stiff neck, high fever, sensitivity to light, confusion, headaches and vomiting. Infection often also causes a rash, according to Fautin. Persons with those symptoms should seek medical evaluation promptly, as this illness can progress and become life-threatening rapidly. 

Despite the danger of the disease, however, it is relatively rare, with only about 100 to 200 annual cases nationwide. Though when it does strike, it tends to waste no time making a large impact on those who contract it.

“A young adult can go from very healthy one day to feeling a little cruddy to being in intensive care and potentially dying in a few hours,” Fautin said.

This pattern seems to have occurred in Ojeda’s case as well. His body managed to fend off the meningitis bacteria within his nasal passages while he was healthy, but once he suffered the spider bite, his immune system became weak enough to make him a target.

“I had flu-like symptoms and many people who go to the hospital get told to go home because they just have the flu apparently,” Ojeda said.

Ojeda recalls having a headache and fever the night he went to the hospital, but not a stiff neck. According to Ojeda, he did not have many of the meningococcal symptoms until later into the night and early Sunday morning. Ojeda was hospitalized on Sunday around 6 a.m.

“It was dumb of me because it could have been easily prevented,” Ojeda said. “I had gone to the bathroom (that night) and I hadn’t turned on the lights. I just went to the bathroom in the dark, and I don’t know why I didn’t turn on the lights. But if I had, I probably could have noticed spots on my skin. The vessels in my eyes had probably already burst from vomiting. I just didn’t turn on the light.”

Dr. Jeffrey Mull, the director of Medical Services and staff physician of Student Health Services, has worked on the Oregon State University campus for 33 years, including during the meningococcal outbreaks within the last year.

“Once the menB bacteria becomes invasive, it begins to produce a powerful endotoxin that is responsible for the seriousness of this disease,” Mull said via email. “This endotoxin causes a severe inflammatory response in the blood vessels of the infected individual. It also weakens the heart muscles.”

Endotoxins are large molecules secreted by some forms of bacteria when they burst and are responsible for many human diseases, including Meningococcal, according to Mull.

Once the inflammation response hits the individual’s vascular system, the blood leaks into surrounding tissues, Mull added. This leads to shock, caused by low blood pressure and constriction of blood vessels, further weakening the heart. It is this constriction of vessels and strain on the heart muscle that can lead to the lack of blood flow to limbs and their eventual loss.

“All of these processes also cause swelling of the brain,” Mull said via email. “Since the brain is in a rigid cavity (the skull) there is not much room to accommodate excessive swelling. The increased pressure within the skull, along with decreased blood flow, can lead to temporary or permanent brain damage.”

According to Fautin, with students on and off campus, the potential risk of coming in contact with Meningococcal is not impossible.

“In one study done on a university campus in the United Kingdom, carriage rates rose from 7 percent to 23 percent during the first week of school,” Mull said via email. “In those living in residence halls, the rates rose from 14 percent to 34 percent during the same period.”

OSU has had three cases of Meningococcal B since the start of the 2017-18 academic school year, with a total of six cases within the past year and a half—which includes cases of Meningococcal that had occurred in the 2016-17 academic school year. 

According to Mull, the mortality rate of Meningococcal B is 100 percent if the disease is allowed to progress without treatment. Fatalities remain around 10 percent for infected patients, even with early detection and proper antibiotic treatment. Of those who survive their encounter with the disease, upwards of 20 percent will develop a permanent disability, including loss of limbs or digits, loss of hearing or vision or loss of mental functionality. 

“I’m a lifetime amputee now,” Ojeda said. “I just don’t feel the same thought-process wise. It took a lot away. A lot of freedom. I have to depend on a lot of stuff and a lot of people. I’ve always been my own person, I don’t like to ask for help. That’s also another part—I don’t like to ask for help. I’ll push and get sores instead of asking for help or getting the wheelchair. I told myself I wasn’t getting into a wheelchair.”

Prior to the hospitalization, Ojeda had not gotten his meningococcal B vaccination, nor had he started the meningococcal B series.

“I think I might’ve been aware of (the vaccination), but I’m super against vaccinations, believe it or not,” Ojeda said. “Well, I was up until that happened. So, I didn’t really take any vaccines just because I had done my research.”

According to Fautin, the meningococcal vaccine is a vital part of ensuring an individual is protected against the disease. Getting the vaccine provides protection against the bacteria taking hold. There are two brands of meningococcal B vaccine, according to Fautin. One requires two doses and one requires three doses. It’s critical that a person have their full series using the same vaccine, so if they start with the three-dose brand, they need three doses, and if they start with the two-dose brand, they need two doses.

“The best defense we have is for all of those (susceptible) people to be protected,” Fautin said. “Being vaccinated means you can encounter the bug and you won’t get sick.”

OSU now requires all students under the age of 25 to have the meningococcal B vaccination series by Feb. 15.

According to Mull, the only way to ensure the vaccine is effective in protecting you from meningococcal B is to receive both doses. Only getting one dose will not be an effective means of building your resistance to the disease.

“Men B vaccine induces our immune system to produce antibodies against the outer coating of the Meningococcal bacteria,” Mull said via email. “These antibodies in turn kill the bacteria. Antibodies take several weeks to develop and full immunity does not occur until all recommended doses of vaccine are administered.”

Ojeda encourages others to get their vaccinations, as it is the only way to prevent the Men B disease.

“It’s like winning the lottery; it’s (the disease) pretty rare and it attacks healthy adults,” Ojeda said. “I was an athlete, I was so healthy. It doesn’t matter though, it doesn’t discriminate. It’ll kill you.”