As Berwick girl mourned, Maine woman recalls son’s death from meningitis

When Jeri Brooks Greenwell heard about a little Berwick girl who died on Sunday from meningitis, her heart broke for the family.

Greenwell, of Bethel, lost her son to the disease 11 years ago. While Jerry Greenwell enjoyed a longer life, contracting the disease at 23, his rapid, unexpected deterioration mirrored that of 6-year-old Evalise “Evie” McLean.

On a Friday in April 2003, Jerry’s girlfriend called Greenwell and her husband to report that Jerry was sick with the flu and had to postpone a planned breakfast. By 2 a.m. the following morning, he’d developed a rash and his roommates were carrying him into the emergency room at Maine Medical Center in Portland. He was soon diagnosed with meningococcal meningitis, a condition in which the lining of the brain and spinal cord become dangerously infected with bacteria.

Greenwell and her husband arrived less than an hour before doctors put Jerry in a medically induced coma. He was otherwise strong and fit, working as a restaurant supervisor in South Portland and exploring a future as a state trooper. 

He died just before 7 a.m. that Monday, three days after falling ill.

“I didn’t know there was a vaccine that could potentially have saved Jerry’s life,” Greenwell said.

Still stinging from the loss, Greenwell began advocating for greater awareness of the disease and the vaccine. She worked with Maine legislators to establish a state mandate requiring colleges to educate students about the vaccination and contributed to the development of the CDC’s Universal Childhood Immunization Program, which provides immunizations to all children in Maine. She also became active with the National Meningitis Association.

“I’ve known other families…whose children have called and said they didn’t feel well, they had stayed home from school or left school, and the parents have returned home within an hour or two and their child was gone,” she said. “It progresses very rapidly.”

Greenwell wants to spread the word about the vaccine for meningococcal disease, recommended in two doses at age 11 or 12, with a booster shot at 16. (If the first dose is administered later, between 13 and 15, the booster is recommended between 16 and 18.)

It’s not the only vaccine that protects against meningitis. The Haemophilus influenzae type b (or Hib) immunization prevents against the condition in younger children, as well as against pneumonia and other serious infections caused by that bacteria. It’s recommended for all children younger than five, typically administered to infants starting at two months old.

“Evie” McLean had that vaccination, her maternal aunt told the Foster’s Daily Democrat, but Haemophilus influenzae type b still claimed her life. It remains unclear why the immunization failed. Vaccines are never 100 percent effective, but public health experts say they’re the best protection available.

While health officials aren’t concerned that McLean’s meningitis spread to others, the related form of the illness Greenwell’s son contracted is contagious. College freshmen living in close quarters in dorms are particularly at risk.

The bacteria that cause meningitis are infections, but some of the disease-causing germs are unlikely to spread from person to person. Meningococcal meningitis, the type Jerry Greenwell died from, poses more of a danger of spreading, through direct contact with an infected person’s saliva.

Meningitis also can be caused by viruses, though the viral condition is rarely fatal in healthy people.

It’s been 11 years since Jerry Greenwell died, but his mother’s still hopes to warn others of its dangers.

“This disease and so many others can affect anyone, anywhere at any time,” Greenwell said. “That’s why it’s so vitally important right now that we get the message out that everyone who possibly can becomes vaccinated.”

 Symptoms of bacterial meningitis include:

  • sudden onset of fever, headache, and stiff neck
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Increased sensitivity to light
  • Altered mental status, or confusion

Anyone who suspects they may have meningitis should see a doctor immediately.

Jackie Farwell

About Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and finding new ways to help you stay well. I live in Gorham with my husband Nick and our hound dog Riley.