MOORPARK (CBSLA.com) — A Moorpark couple who lost their daughter to bacterial meningitis is speaking for the first time in hopes that lives may be saved through their story.
Sara Stelzer was a recent graduate of Moorpark High School and freshman at San Diego State University when she died in October after contracting the bacterial infection. She was 18.
Stelzer rarely got sick so when she called home saying she didn’t feel well, her parents figured she had the flu. That call was placed on a Sunday evening at 8 p.m.
“A little bit of a headache. A little achy. So we said, ‘Oh, you know. You’re probably coming down with something. Let’s talk tomorrow,’ ” Laurie Stelzer, Sara’s mother, recalls.
Fourteen hours later, on Monday morning at 10 a.m., Stelzer called again. She still wasn’t herself and said she had thrown up.
“She went to class. She had a speech to give,” she said.
Later that afternoon, Sara felt worse.
“She had a headache. Achiness. Kind of sick to her stomach. I said, ‘You know, it really sounds like the flu but get some rest. Don’t go to class,’ ” she said.
On Tuesday morning at 9 a.m., Greg Stelzer, Sara’s father, said he sent her a text message and asked, “How are you feeling?”
“All I got back from her was, ‘I have a migraine,’ ” he said.
Then a little later, he said she sent another message that said, “I have all these spots.”
“I said, ‘It may not be anything but definitely go to the health center,’ ” he said.
Less than two hours later, Stelzer was rushed to the hospital and her parents endured an unbearable three-hour drive from Moorpark to San Diego.
“It’s probably the hardest drive we’ve ever made,” he said. “The doctor got on the phone with me, ‘We’ve got her in ICU’ and he said, ‘She’s not in good condition.’ ”
By the time they arrived at the hospital, just 40 hours after that first call, Stelzer was on a ventilator, not breathing on her own.
“She was already in a coma and she never came out of it,” her father said. “And the neurosurgeon said there’s nothing really he could do.”
“And when he says that she’s likely brain dead, to me those words are just haunting and you feel your world ends at that moment in time,” she said.
Stelzer died of bacterial meningitis, a disease that can spread so quickly to the blood and brain it can be lethal within hours.
“I was shocked. I thought she had the vaccine and thought we were covered,” she said.
Her father said: “I didn’t know about the B strain until this happened and I didn’t know there wasn’t a vaccine for it. I just assumed that one covered all.”
The vaccine usually received at the age of 11 or 12 followed by a booster at age 16 or before college never covered the B strain in the U.S.
The Stelzers wish they had known more about the symptoms, which include: sudden fever, vomiting, headache, stiff painful neck, and a rash.
Meningitis commonly spreads through sharing cups, kissing and being in close quarters (like college dorms).
Antibiotics can help stop the progress once it starts but they have to be given quickly.
“If I had known, I would have been perhaps had one more tool in the bag, you know, maybe one small chance that we would have caught it before it became too late,” she said.
“Had I known, I would have said, ‘Get to the hospital. Get the antibiotics. Tell them you’re a freshman in college and you have flu-like symptoms. Your neck hurts.’ And they would have given you the antibiotics,” her father said. “I could have done something.”
The Stelzers want to remind parents that if a child has flu-like symptoms and a stiff neck to not wait and have them go to the emergency room immediately.
The Stelzers know Sara’s legacy is living on in a tree now planted firmly in the ground at Moorpark High School.
Her legacy also continues as Sara was an organ donor. The antibiotics were able to allow her to donate to five different people. The Stelzers are told all are doing well.
“Saying goodbye is just so final. It’s not something any mother should have to do. It’s not the right order of things,” she said. “If one less child dies of this disease when it’s preventable that would be a very strong legacy for Sara.”
While it was too late for Sara, there are now two FDA-approved vaccines for the B strain in the U.S. They are approved for ages 10 to 25. It is to be given in addition to the regular meningitis vaccine but parents must decide what it right for their children until CDC guidelines are in place. For more information, visit: