Meningitis Survivor Supports Vaccine Approval

By: Jeanie Erwin
Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Though we would not invite difficult situations into our lives, some events are so positively life-changing that they are well worth the pain and hardship they cause, says Andy Marso, award-winning reporter for the Kansas Health Institute and author of Worth the Pain: How Meningitis Nearly Killed Me — Then Changed My Life for the Better.

Nothing could have prepared the then-22-year-old senior at the University of Kansas, just three weeks from graduating, for how his life would change April 28, 2004. Nothing.

On that spring morning, Marso awoke feeling a bit under the weather. The only thing that hinted at the devastation that would soon rock his world was an odd purple rash on his arms, which he ignored. The rash, really bruises from blood leaking from pierced vessels, was the first visible symptom of the rare but deadly bacterial meningitis, a disease that kills 20 percent of its victims.

Soon, Marso was so weak he could not get out of bed. A friend realized that Marso’s rash and flu-like symptoms needed medical attention and insisted he go to the student health facilities. By then, Marso was so weak that he could not walk. Two friends wrapped his arms over their shoulders and nearly carried him to the clinic.

Upon Marso’s arrival, the health facility doctor, Leah Luckeroth, MD, recognized the symptoms of bacterial meningitis and called for an ambulance to transport him to the hospital. Meanwhile, the University of Kansas acted quickly to prevent an outbreak, making sure anyone who had contact with Marso received preventive antibiotics.

“Overnight, I went from a healthy college student to [a patient in] intensive care, on a ventilator, with lungs failing, fighting for my life,” Marso recounts.

Soon, he was in a medically induced coma that would last three weeks. Doctors pulled no punches about the severity of his illness and told his family they did not expect him to survive. At the very least, he would likely lose parts of all four limbs.

When Marso emerged from his coma, family, friends and medical staff all said what a miracle it was that he made it. The gravity of the situation tempered his own joy as he realized that something was wrong with his arms and legs.

“When the bandages were removed, I saw that my limbs were nearly black, and more or less rotting while still attached to my body,” he recalls. “Nothing can describe how disturbing that is.”

Ultimately, Marso lost all his fingers except his right thumb, and parts of both feet. He spent four months in the hospital and nine months in rehabilitation, enduring painful therapies to save as much of his limbs as possible.

The treatments were grueling, painful and nightmarish, with the emotional recovery just as difficult as the physical rehabilitation.

After going through the stages of grief, coupled with the pain of recovery, Marso became introspective and committed to letting this experience make his life better.

Andy Marso Coconut 250
Marso on his trip to Brazil in 2008

“Everything was divided into life before and life after,” he says. “I was determined to make my life after as great as, if not better than, my life before.”

Marso has stayed true to the course, living a life marked by patience, humor, sensitivity and advocacy. Today, the journalist makes regular speaking appearances, advocating for the approval of the European meningitis vaccine, Bexsero.

“I have two focal messages today,” he says. “The first is that we need to get approval for the vaccine, and then we should push for widespread vaccination. It is approved in Australia, Europe and Canada, but not yet … in the United States.”

Bexsero was recently used in response to a deadly outbreak at Princeton University, when the drug received a waiver for that specific occurrence.

“Clearly, the FDA feels it is safe and effective or they would not administer it to the students,” Marso says. “If it is safe enough for Princeton students, why is it not safe for the rest of the population?”

Marso encourages everyone, especially students who are most vulnerable because of their close living and eating quarters, to push for the vaccine’s approval.

“My second message is more personal,” he says. “It is that you can do anything that you want to do, no matter what hardships come your way. Your life can be all that you want it to be, and more.”

Today Marso, whose life is marked by joy and triumph, shares his experience in his book, which encourages everyone to dig deep, be vulnerable, be patient and take chances.

Some difficult experiences are worth the pain, he says.