On an autumn day in 2003, Carl Buher came down with a high fever, headache, nausea, vomiting, and exhaustion. His parents, Curt and Lori Buher, thought he had flu, like his football buddies. But when Carl became disoriented and developed purple splotches all over his face and arms, they rushed him to the doctor.
The Mt. Vernon, Wash., 14-year-old had contracted meningococcal disease, also known as bacterial meningitis, a rare but potentially deadly infection that can kill a healthy young person in less than a day.
So aggressive was Carl's infection that he had to be airlifted to Children's Hospital in Seattle. En route, he was resuscitated three times. Once hospitalized, doctors put him in a drug-induced coma for four weeks and treated him with 25 different medications to keep his body functioning. The high doses of antibiotics weren't enough. The fast-moving infection resulted in gangrene and he lost both feet and three fingers to amputation.
In just five months, Carl went from a strapping 185-pound football player to a weak 119-pound teenager. The seven operations for skin grafting and amputation were only the beginning. Physical therapy continued for years afterward.
Despite the hardships, Carl and his parents are far from bitter. "I want people to look on my experience not as a bad thing, but a good thing," Carl tells WebMD.
Before their son got sick, Curt and Lori Buher say they weren't aware of the vaccine available to prevent the disease -- nor the disease itself.
Teens and young adults are at increased risk for meningitis, accounting for about 15% of all cases reported in the U.S., according to the National Meningitis Association. Certain lifestyle factors, such as crowded conditions in college dormitories or irregular sleep patterns, are thought to increase risk of the disease.
The disease affects about 1,500 Americans a year. It’s transmitted through an exchange of respiratory droplets, such as sneezing or coughing, or through direct contact with someone infected, such as kissing.
One of seven cases among teens results in death, according to the National Meningitis Association.
Today the entire Buher family, including Carl's two older siblings, takes every opportunity to raise awareness of the vaccine and the disease, whenever it comes up in conversation with friends and acquaintances, Carl says.
Carl and his mother, however, are most involved in the effort. Lori Buher is a member of a group called Moms on Meningitis, affiliated with the National Meningitis Association. The coalition includes mothers whose lives have been changed by meningitis, and they push for education and awareness of the vaccine. Carl has created a video for the association. During Carl's treatment, Curt Buher became an Internet research expert, turning to the web to research facts about the disease, treatment options, and recovery.