Paralympian brings awareness of meningitis risks, protection to UMass workshop

  • Vaccination advocate and Paralympic gold medalist Nicholas Springer speaks about his experience with meningococcal meningitis April 6, 2017 during an emergency exercise and workshop at UMass Amherst. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • An old photo depicting vaccination advocate and Paralympic gold medalist Nicholas Springer, along with his sister Olivia Springer, is displayed Thursday during an emergency exercise and workshop Springer gave at UMass Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Vaccination advocate and Paralympic gold medalist Nicholas Springer, above and below left, speaks about his experience with meningococcal meningitis Thursday during an emergency exercise and workshop at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Jessica Yu, a nursing student at UMass Amherst, and others listen to Nicholas Springer’s talk Thursday in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Vaccination advocate and Paralympic gold medalist Nicholas Springer speaks about his experience with meningococcal meningitis April 6, 2017 during an emergency exercise and workshop at UMass Amherst. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A large crowd listens to vaccination advocate and Paralympic gold medalist Nicholas Springer talk about his experience with meningococcal meningitis April 6, 2017 during an emergency exercise and workshop at UMass Amherst. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Vaccination advocate and Paralympic gold medalist Nicholas Springer speaks about his experience with meningococcal meningitis April 6, 2017 during an emergency exercise and workshop at UMass Amherst. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Jessica Yu, a nursing student at UMass Amherst, center, applauds following vaccination advocate and Paralympic gold medalist Nicholas Springer's talk about his experience with meningococcal meningitis April 6, 2017 during an emergency exercise and workshop at UMass Amherst. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

Published: 4/6/2017 9:04:14 PM

AMHERST — When he was an athletic 14-year-old hiking the Berkshires during a YMCA summer camp, Nick Springer would never have imagined that two months later he’d wake up from a coma weighing just 53 pounds, his arms and legs amputated after a vicious battle with an entirely preventable disease.

Now 31, Springer is a gold-medal winning Paralympic athlete who travels the country advocating increased vaccination against what nearly killed him almost 20 years ago: meningococcal disease, more commonly known as meningitis.

“I live every day with the repercussions of not vaccinating,” Springer told an audience at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on Thursday. “And at the end of the day, I’m one of the lucky ones.”

After all, up to 15 percent of those affected by bacterial meningitis end up dead, and many survivors experience brain damage. Springer said some 250 children died from meningitis the same year he got sick.

Meningitis is an inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. Viral meningitis is generally a less severe form of the disease from which most people can recover on their own.

Springer’s talk was part of an emergency-preparedness workshop and exercise Thursday to test plans for dealing with a highly contagious illness like meningitis at the Five Colleges community. Participating in the exercise were nursing and public health students, volunteers and emergency response partners ranging from state and local health departments to the Hampshire Regional Emergency Planning Committee.

“It is public health emergency preparation,” said Ann Becker, UMass public health nurse and Medical Reserve Corps unit coordinator. “If there was some kind of large outbreak, we want to be ready.”

In this case, being ready meant simulating a meningitis B outbreak at the Five Colleges and the ensuing set-up of a mass vaccination clinic. The idea was to test, and hopefully improve, the level of communication and collaboration between the universities and their respective communities.

Becker, 55, said the exercise, which was funded by the Hampshire Public Health Preparedness Coalition, grew out of the university’s experience with the 2009 swine flu pandemic. Then, public health workers mobilized to do the same kind of work being simulated Thursday.

“During that time, I learned a lot,” Becker said.

As for meningitis, vaccines have been around since the 1980s, but they only covered four of the five major meningococcal disease serogroups.

Since 2014, there has been a vaccine in the United States against that fifth group: meningitis B, which accounts for one-third of cases in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control. However, to date more than 90 percent of Americans between the ages of 16 and 23 have not received the meningitis B vaccine.

“People don’t realize there are two vaccines,” Springer told the Gazette. “This is a reality that, for whatever reason, people just aren’t fully protected against.”

That reality is especially troubling considering that college-age people are more likely to contract meningitis because of tight living quarters, sharing drinks, kissing and other close contact.

For Springer, events like Thursday’s exercise go a long toward improving that situation.

“It brings a lot of awareness to a very important issue,” he said. That’s essential, he said, because with so much information flooding college students about all the risks facing them, meningitis vaccination can seem comparatively small. “It can get lost in the mix.”

Like the flu

Given his own experience, Springer hopes to bring the issue of meningitis to the forefront.

It was early August of 1999 when Springer fell ill after a three-day hike, during which he had been sharing water bottles with his friends. At first, it looked like Springer just had something common like the flu, which is what the camp nurse initially diagnosed him with.

But just the next day, Springer collapsed after lunchtime, and the nurse instantly knew what the spots forming on his skin meant: blood poisoning.

“She had a look on her face of sheer terror,” Springer recounted. The nurse broke protocol and started him on emergency antibiotics, probably saving his life in the process.

From camp, Springer was eventually rushed to Baystate Trauma Center in Springfield. Before being put into a coma, a doctor had Springer call his mother for what the doctor assumed might be their last conversation.

His liver and kidneys failed, his lung collapsed, his heart rate soared over 300 beats per minute and his fever reached almost 108 degrees; doctors told his parents he had a less than 10 percent chance of making it through the night.

“This disease was literally suffocating me from the inside out,” Springer said.

But he survived, and was eventually transferred to the burn unit at New York–Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan. Springer’s legs were amputated at the knee, his arms at the forearm, and he underwent skin grafts and more than 12 surgeries.

Springer has gone on to become a world-class wheelchair rugby player known for his speed and defense. At 20, he won a world championship, and at 23 he won a gold medal at the 2008 Summer Paralympic Games in Beijing.

The day after the gold-medal game, however, Springer’s mother, Nancy — one of the founders of the National Meningitis Association — died of cancer just an hour before Springer’s plane landed back home.

Springer’s mother had dedicated herself to helping protect families from meningitis. After her death, Springer took up that advocacy work, making sure people know about the vaccines his family had never heard of when he fell ill.

“The big issue for us was, ‘Why didn’t we know about this?’” Springer said.

He hopes no other family has to ask themselves that question.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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