TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Andy Marso's final weeks of college at KU in 2004 were memorable for events he doesn't really remember himself, but that left lasting scars.
"Overnight, I went from totally healthy to almost dead," he said.
Then age 22, the journalism major who now works at the Topeka Capital Journal told a friend he was going to bed early with what he thought was the flu. By morning, he could barely get up and had a strange tingling in his hands and feet, which were covered in a dark, reddish rash. When two other friends came to check on him, they had to carry him down the stairs and put him in a car to take him to the doctor.
A drive to the student health center led to an ambulance ride to Lawrence Memorial Hospital, where a spinal tap diagnosed Marso with a rare form of bacterial meningitis. He was flown to KU Medical Center, where he'd spend the next 119 days.
"Bacteria had gone all throughout my blood stream so it had compromised all my vital organs," Marso said.
Marso spent the first three weeks in a drug-induced coma while doctors plied him with medications to kill the bacteria. But the bacteria wreaking havoc on his body also also affected his blood vessels, cutting off the blood supply to his hands and feet.
"When I woke up, my fingers and toes were pretty much rotting away while still attached to my body," Marso recalls.
Doctors compared it to having third degree burns over 30 percent of his body. He underwent treatments, just like a burn patient would receive, to remove dead tissue and graft new skin. His fingers and toes gradually blackened and couldn't be saved, but doctors did save his arms and legs. Marso underwent a total of 16 surgeries to reshape his hands and feet. His arms now end in with two round nubs instead of hands, which Marso is able to use to grasp and type. He has about half his foot and thinner tissue on his heels, but with special shoes and braces on his lower legs, he walks normally.
One of the friends who saw Marso through the ordeal was Randy Schumacher, who's now a doctor at Topeka's PediatricCare. Seeing firsthand what the disease can do, Schumacher is now a strong advocate with parents and preteens and teens to get the meningitis vaccination.
The CDC recommends the meningitis vaccine for children after age 11, with a booster after age 16, before kids head off to college, where they're more at risk. Since the bacteria spreads through close contact, Dr. Schumacher says, putting a bunch of students together in close quarters when their immune systems are often compromised from lack of sleep can create a "petri dish" for meningitis to become more of a problem.
The meningitis vaccine covers four bacterial strains responsible for 83-percent of the meningitis cases. Most insurance now covers it. After Marso's ordeal, the Board of Regents adopted a requirement for all students living in on-campus housing to get the vaccine.
While it turned out Marso had one of the rarer strains not covered in the vaccine, he still agrees that if more teens and parents were educated, they wouldn't hesitate to get the shot and lower their risk. He admits, before he got sick, he thought of meningitis as just a bad cold. He says he might have known it was contagious, but he didn't know it could be fatal or that it could do what it did to him.
Marso says doctors did a remarkable job saving his arms and legs, though he admits it took him a long time to realize he was fortunate. He says his parents were "awesome," taking leaves from their jobs in Minnesota to move to Lawrence and guide him through a year of recovery.
Marso now works with a national meningitis organization and realizes more than ever how lucky he was. He says he came to realize he had a choice - give up or do the best with what he had left.
He says it was a pretty easy choice.