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.
Who’s at Risk for Meningitis
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.
Lori Buher also offered testimony at a meeting of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which in late October 2010 recommended to the CDC that a booster dose of meningococcal vaccine be given at age 16, five years after the dose at about age 11.
Every year at the high school freshman orientation in her Washington hometown, Lori talks about the need for vaccination and shares Carl's story. She stops by the sixth grade class to talk about it, as well.
People have to understand the risk of getting the disease before they decide to get vaccinated, says Carl.
"People just don't think it's going to happen to them."
Road to Recovery
Carl says that during his five-month hospital stay, "I would wake up every morning, and say, 'Oh darn, why am I still here?'" But after a while, “I was tired of it, tired of being like that."
"I felt like I had to persevere," he tells WebMD. "I had an image in my mind of what I was and what I wanted to be."
Carl’s physical therapy continued through most of high school. "It was a long haul, and everything took longer than I thought. The hardest part was learning how to walk."
With foot prostheses, he says, "you have to learn a whole new pattern."
He also credits family support from his mom and dad and his two siblings, who are four and five years older. "The biggest influence was definitely my mom," he says. "She was there every single day."
Today, the 22-year-old is on track to get his bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., in May 2011, and he plans to start a career designing roads and bridges.
''My dad's a contractor, and I've always been around buildings," he says. His love of math and science, along with excellent grades, helped, too. He was valedictorian of his class, graduating with a 4.0.
He also had to adapt to the three fingers lost to amputation. "I had to learn to type and write differently," he says. He had to learn to eat differently. But by far, he says, learning to walk with the prostheses was the biggest challenge. Right now, he's not playing sports as he used to.
The experience of having meningitis, he says, was a turning point for him. "I realize what's important in life. It's important to be true to who you are. Stick to your morals. That's all anyone can ask."