Rare Hib disease increases in Minnesota

Is the anti-vaccine movement to blame?

As the ultrasound tech spread the cool gel over her swollen belly, Brendalee Flint held her breath. Would it be another boy? Or would she finally get the daughter she'd always wanted? She'd be happy either way, she reminded herself for the umpteenth time.

Flint peered at the strange white shape on the black monitor. Even after three kids, the image still amazed her—watching the heartbeat was so cool. The ultrasound tech pointed out the lungs, the tiny hands, the little brain. The tech waited patiently. There! Now she could see. It was a girl.

Flint squealed. She wanted to go out and buy everything girly and sweet. To prepare for the baby's homecoming, Flint bought a purple dress and a matching headband and handbag.

Julieanna rushed into the world in October 2006, and came home three days old and already owning a purse. Her parents beamed, her aunties doted, her grandfathers cooed. She was the 15th grandchild to join the Flint family—but she was only the second girl.

Julieanna grew fast. Strong and chubby, she was a bundle of delight capped with dark hair and wide blue eyes. Her big brothers—Nicky, Alex, and Chris—pampered and adored her. "Julie," "Juju," "Jujubeek," "Jujubear," the family called her.

When Julieanna was 15 months old, her brother Chris called their mother at work because the baby was throwing up. Flint rushed from her job at Applebee's in Delano to her home in sleepy Watertown, a village set along the gentle Crow River.

By the time Flint arrived home, the situation had improved. The baby was running a slight fever but wasn't vomiting. A product of a family that believed in letting nature toughen the constitution, Flint gave the baby Tylenol and put her to bed.

The next day, Julieanna woke up puking, and her temperature began to rise. Flint called the office of Heidi Wuerger, her family doctor.

"It sounds like the flu," the nurse said. "Give her Tylenol."

Flint complied and kept a careful watch on Julieanna all day, feeding her liquids to flush out the illness, cooling her body with a wet washcloth.

The following day, Flint undid the baby's diaper and caught a whiff of something unusually pungent. Julieanna's urine was the color of orange juice, and its odor reminded Flint of the ammonia smell of the nursing home where she worked as an aide. As the day wore on, Julieanna refused to eat or drink.

Early the next morning, Flint awoke with a start: Julieanna was screaming—a shrill, sharp wail. Flint held Julie close, and the baby relaxed and dropped immediately to sleep. Flint shifted the little girl away from her body, and Julieanna awoke and screamed again. Flint pulled her close and the baby instantly fell back to sleep. Flint held Julieanna for hours. When the baby's temperature soared to 104 degrees, Flint called the doctor and made an appointment.

She put Julieanna in a bath to cool her. The little girl slumped against the back of the tub, as if she'd forgotten how to sit up on her own. Flint ran cold water over Julie's hair. The little girl held her head ramrod straight and her neck stiff. Her blue eyes veered left to meet Flint's, and the mother read an expression of terror in her baby's eyes. Flint pulled her daughter out of the tub, toweled her off, and rushed to the emergency room at Ridgeview Medical Center in Waconia.

The doctors admitted Julieanna for severe dehydration. They administered an IV, gave her a battery of tests to rule out pneumonia and bacterial infections, and kept her overnight. The physicians prodded and poked, but Julieanna hardly whimpered.

Flint stayed up all night, lying beside her baby on the hospital bed.

When Dr. Wuerger checked in the next morning, she knew that something was terribly wrong—she had never seen Julieanna so groggy and unresponsive. Wuerger called for a spinal tap.

The E.R. doc pierced Julieanna's spine with a long needle. The baby was so out of it that she could barely muster a soft moan in response. Flint had never seen her little girl so lethargic, and the sight of it scared her. She cried as the doctor withdrew the spinal fluid: a thick, yellow smear of pus.

"Brendalee, it doesn't look good," he said. "It's supposed to come out clear."

Julieanna's white blood cell count was 145,000—thousands of times higher than normal.

The doctor said something about meningitis and Children's Hospital in Minneapolis.

Brendalee felt confused.

"Your daughter is seriously ill," Wuerger told Flint. "We need to transport her to Children's—now!"

   

FLINT CALLED HER SISTER, and together they followed in Flint's car closely behind the ambulance carrying Julieanna to Minneapolis. The women phoned their family members with the bad news and rode the rest of the way in fear-filled silence.

At Children's, the doctors quarantined Julieanna in a double-doored isolation room in the pediatric intensive care unit. The little girl's body was dangerously hot. She was sensitive to light and noise. She lay on the big bed in the dark room, a heart monitor clipped to her toe and an IV in her arm.

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