Rare Hib disease increases in Minnesota

Is the anti-vaccine movement to blame?

Flint's family arrived quickly: her fiancé, Jeff Metcalf, and his mom, Flint's father and sister and the three boys. They scrubbed up and donned surgical masks and robes to enter Julie's room, two at a time. No one was allowed to touch her. The little girl looked so alone and ill on the big hospital bed that Flint began to weep.

After 24 hours at Children's, Julieanna's temperature dropped. The doctors moved her to a less intensive unit, and Flint and Metcalf stayed by Julie's crib, exhausted but too worried to sleep.

Around midnight, a strange sound—a hideous gargle—jolted them alert. Flint snapped to the baby's bed. Julieanna's lip was twitching, her shoulder shuddered, and then her whole right side convulsed.

Dr. Mayer Eisenstein is one of the few medical doctors in the nation who supports the idea that vaccines may cause more harm than good
Larry Engelheart
Dr. Mayer Eisenstein is one of the few medical doctors in the nation who supports the idea that vaccines may cause more harm than good
Dr. Paul Offit, the nation's most prominent vaccine advocate, has received death threats from parents who believe vaccines cause autism
Ed Cunicelli
Dr. Paul Offit, the nation's most prominent vaccine advocate, has received death threats from parents who believe vaccines cause autism

"She's having a seizure," the nurse said.

Flint watched, helpless, as Julie shook for 13 minutes. Metcalf left the room, and when he came back, Flint was furious.

"How are you going to let me be here by myself?" she demanded.

"I was having a talk with the guy upstairs," Metcalf said.

Flint was shocked. Her fiancé never prayed. But two hours later, when Julieanna had another seizure, the couple prayed together. Flint felt peaceful, certain that God heard them.

Later that day, the reason for Julieanna's seizures became clear when the spinal tap results confirmed her diagnosis: meningitis caused by Haemophilus influenza type B—Hib. The doctors explained that the disease had once run rampant in pediatric wards, but had been rare in Minnesota for more than 15 years. There were usually only one or two cases in the state each year.

The doctors called for an MRI, which showed a massive pool of pus covering Julieanna's frontal lobes; she would need emergency brain surgery. The procedure was risky, but so was waiting. If they didn't move fast, Julie could become severely brain damaged or even die.

Flint filled out the paperwork, feeling as though she'd just signed her daughter's death certificate. She carried her baby down to the surgery room. The little girl clung to her mother so tightly that the nurse had to gently pry Julieanna out of Flint's arms.

The doctors quickly prepped Julieanna for the surgery. They lay her on the operating table, gave her anesthetic, and shaved the front of her head—her beautiful baby hair.

Then the neurosurgeon, Dr. Mahmoud Nagib, sliced open her skull in a smooth half-moon, from one ear and across the top of the head to the other. Nagib pulled back the skin and lifted the bone.

The hard, veiny outer covering of Julieanna's brain was coated with white, slimy pus. Nagib gingerly placed a drainage tube in the front brain ventricle and gently flushed the area with antibiotic fluid, washing away the mucus until the liquid ran clear. Nagib carefully replaced the bone and sewed the scalp closed, using more than 40 sutures.

The surgery took two hours. When Nagib finished, Julieanna's head was gently wrapped with gauze and topped with a little plastic hat to keep her from scratching at her wounds.

Nagib emerged in his scrubs, and the family swarmed him.

"Julieanna is fine," he said. "She woke up mad."

Flint laughed out loud with relief. The baby's grandmother, Colleen Metcalf, laughed, too and put her arms around Flint in an embrace.

The next day, as Flint stood by Julieanna's bed, the little girl had another seizure. Flint stormed into the parking lot, swearing, crying, and puffing on cigarettes.

"Are you fucking kidding me?" she yelled, at no one in particular.

Flint cringed as the doctors stuck the tubes of a ventilator up the little girl's nose, inserted a catheter between her legs, and administered medication through the IV to induce a coma.

"We're doing everything to save your daughter's life," a doctor told Flint. Julieanna's body needed to rest, so that all her energy could go toward getting better, he explained.

Julieanna looked near death. Flint called for a priest. The family held hands in a ring around Flint, who stood beside Julieanna's bed, as the priest administered last rites.

"Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit," the priest said, as he marked the baby's forehead with olive oil, spreading it with his finger in the form of a cross. "May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up."

Everyone was crying—except Flint, who wanted desperately to be alone. When the priest finished, Flint locked herself in the bathroom, turned on the shower, and scrunched her body down on the floor. She flipped on the video camera and watched home videos of the old Julieanna, healthy and playful and laughing, nothing wrong. Flint sobbed and sobbed.

Then Flint wrote God a note: "If she's so precious to you, then you can have her."

She put the note in a little plastic baggie with Julie's shaved-off hair and a little holy water. She slept near it, dreaming of Julieanna on a cool beach, happy and well.

The next morning, Flint approached Julieanna's bedside. "JuJuBear," she said softly. The baby flicked her toe.

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