MaryJo Aglubat Kwett was swept away from this life she enthusiastically embraced, just before her 16th birthday, by a stealthy killer: meningitis! She died from a serogroup of meningococcal meningitis that is vaccine-preventable.
MaryJo was a vibrant and intelligent girl who thoroughly loved life. Whether she was in front of an audience performing her repertoire of songs and dances or at Kung Fu sparring with fellow martial artists, MaryJo always exuded warmth and poise, sharing her sweet smile. She had traveled extensively in Europe, Australia, Canada and the U.S. She was scheduled to be an art teacher’s aide during the summer of 2000. A talented pianist, she taught herself to play the guitar so she could lullaby the children to sleep at her family rescue shelter volunteer work.
Prior to a school-sponsored mission to Mexico, an appointment with her pediatrician was made to get the appropriate immunizations. Although she was given Hepatitis A vaccine, meningococcal meningitis was not mentioned as an option. MaryJo wrote of her mission experience: “I will take the trip again. For ten days you can leave the comforts of home; you are forced to forget, no, you are liberated from all material possessions that ever bound your soul to the material world and you can live for the first time. To help people is no longer a job you do for service hours, it becomes an emotion as compelling as love!”
MaryJo’s summer calendar was full! She celebrated life with friends at pool parties, sang Karaoke at a family party, and performed in gospel choir concerts. She loved to write and draw and up to the day the catastrophe struck, she glowed with vitality. She seemed especially happy – surrounded by loved ones, moving in new directions, with a seemingly bright future. Late Friday afternoon, a family friend, who is a general practitioner, laughed and joked with MaryJo and only saw a flourishing youth. She went to the Music Circus that night and was especially animated and excited meeting the actors backstage after the performance.
Early Saturday morning as I was getting ready for work, MaryJo complained of a sore throat. I am a registered nurse but when I examined her, noted no unusual signs and recommended some tylenol and lots of fluids. I checked on her later but she only mentioned feeling a little weak. In the afternoon, MaryJo telephoned me because she had developed brownish spots on her face. This was the first ominous sign that she was very ill. I was terrified as it hit me that she might have MENINGITIS! This disease is frightening because it masquerades as the flu then suddenly bursts into a deadly conflagration.
I rushed home and found MaryJo seated on the sofa with blotchy purplish rash on her face. Brown rashes or purplish blotches indicate the infection has invaded the blood stream. I shivered with fear as I immediately called 911. She was taken to the emergency room where blood work and a spinal tap confirmed the diagnosis. Her body was overwhelmed by the infection that her condition deteriorated rapidly. Thirteen hours after her initial symptoms, MaryJo died from a bacterial blood infection that is vaccine-preventable.
I felt devastated like the world just imploded in me! My heart was pierced right in the middle by this sharp awful arrow and weighted by a gigantic anvil. MaryJo’s face, with a tranquil smile, was still beautiful despite its purplish hue. I felt her presence hovering for a moment, before she ascended with the angels. Everybody was in a state of shock and disbelief due to the unexpected loss of this young and gifted person.
The sudden death of a healthy teenager is a shock to everyone. According to CDC (Centers for Disease Control and prevention), the Sacramento County Health Dept. and local practicing physicians, “the meningococcal vaccine is not recommended because it is expensive, the number of cases is rare, vaccinating teenagers is not cost effective and the number of deaths are negligible.” However, the devastating effect of losing a loved one to this disease is anything but “negligible.”
MaryJo is remembered for her loving, spirited dedication to helping others. In her journal she wrote: “Others should be remembering us for our positive influence on the lives of those around us. We should be known because we changed someone’s life.”
The lives of our children will not be in vain. I want others to know that meningitis can happen to anyone, anywhere and at anytime even to accomplished healthy teens. Since MaryJo’s death, MAK – Meningitis Awareness Key to prevention, a nonprofit organization, was founded to campaign for increased meningitis awareness, to advocate for legislation & resolutions, and to collaborate with other agencies in support of meningitis vaccination programs.
By Rose A. Kwett