‘I was lucky’

Amelia Moore The Daily Illini

By Whitney Blair Wyckoff

Erica Van Zuidam has a hanging shoe rack in her Illini Tower dorm room filled with colorful Pumas, pink Nikes and, her favorites, a pair of small-heeled Nine Wests.

But Van Zuidam, an outgoing, blonde, blue-eyed sophomore in AHS, has to take extra care selecting her footwear. She has prosthetic feet, and to make sure that she isn’t off-balance, Van Zuidam can’t wear shoes with heels that are too high, nor can she wear flats.

Van Zuidam’s feet and hands were amputated when she contracted bacterial meningitis her freshman year in the spring of 2005. After taking a year off college for rehabilitation, she’s back at the University with a goal: to educate people about the dangers of meningitis and to encourage students to get the meningitis vaccination.

“I’d never heard of meningitis,” Van Zuidam said. She’d never gotten a vaccination.

Van Zuidam first noticed something was wrong when she went swimming at IMPE one afternoon during the finals week her freshman year. She had felt under the weather, but Van Zuidam didn’t give it much thought. She had only recently gotten over a cold.

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She tried to sleep off what she thought was the early stages of the flu. “She’s a study rat,” said Jessica Bretl, Van Zuidam’s friend, who found Van Zuidam asleep later that night with her calculus textbook. Her calculus final was scheduled for later that week.

But the next day, Van Zuidam was so nauseous she could barely move and she couldn’t stop throwing up. She also noticed that she had purple splotches on her arms, legs and stomach.

When she came to Bretl’s room, “she couldn’t even talk,” Bretl said. “All she could say was ‘I don’t feel good.'”

Bretl and her roommate Andrea Bidlencik rushed Van Zuidam to Carle Hospital. Immediately, doctors suspected meningitis. But they had to perform a spinal tap, using a needle to extract spinal fluid, to be certain.

“I was in so much pain that I didn’t even notice the spinal tap,” Van Zuidam said. Her condition was touch and go for a while. Van Zuidam lapsed into a coma for seven weeks.

“She was on the edge for a long time,” Bretl said.

When Van Zuidam woke up, she found herself in a different hospital. They had flown her to the University of Chicago for her treatment. She couldn’t talk and she could barely move. She was attached to a respirator and feeding tubes. She had suffered from massive organ failure, and the blood supply running to her hands and feet had been cut off.

“My hands and feet were like a mummy’s,” Van Zuidam said. “They turned black and were wrapped up.”

Intuitively, Van Zuidam knew that amputation was imminent. Still, she said that no one would tell her flat out that her hands and feet would be taken off.

But she said counted down the days until the amputation surgeries.

“You’re sitting with hands that are useless,” she said. “And I knew there were prosthesis. I just wanted to get out of there and move on.”

After the amputations, Van Zuidam worked with an occupational therapist to adjust to not having hands and feet and, later, worked with prosthesis. Before she had contracted meningitis, Van Zuidam had never heard of occupational therapy. She had intended on becoming a high school math teacher, but working with an occupational therapist inspired Van Zuidam to pursue a career in physical therapy.

“It was hard to work with someone who had hands,” she said, adding that she thought it would be easier for a person with prosthesis to teach others how to use them.

Van Zuidam said that she knows how close she came. Doctors had predicted that she would die at noon the first day she was admitted to the hospital.

“I was lucky,” she said. “Not everyone is lucky.”

Freshmen are particularly at risk for contracting meningitis because “they’re moving to a high density situation,” said Dr. David Lawrance, a physician at the McKinley Health Center. Cases of meningitis occur in five out of every 100,000 college freshmen, he said.

While it is best to receive a meningitis vaccine before coming to college during a student’s senior year of high school, Lawrance recommended that anyone who has not been vaccinated get the shot.

A vaccination costs $40 at McKinley Health Center, and students can charge it to their student accounts.

“The vaccine protects against most strains of meningitis,” he said. Lawrance also said that students should come to McKinley if there’s ever a question of whether someone has meningitis.

But Van Zuidam said that despite her disability, her future looks bright. One of the things that she said misses most since her amputations is being able to put on gym shoes and go for a run. Van Zuidam, who played volleyball, ran for her high school and used to play intramural volleyball at the University, is now looking into a special type of prosthetic that would allow her to run again.

“I’d like to run in a marathon someday,” she said.

She has also been approached about the possibility of a hand transplant. But she admits that would be a few years down the road.

While Van Zuidam was always a happy-go-lucky person, “This has definitely shaped her character,” Bretl said. “She’s got this spirit about her. Just talking to her – it’s like a breath of fresh air.”

Despite her cheery outlook, she said that she has her down days. Sometimes, she said that she just wants to put her hair in a ponytail or slide socks over her feet.

“You don’t know what I’d give to get out of bed and stand,” she said.

But she said that her friends and family give her a lot of support. She said that many of her friends don’t treat her any differently than before she got meningitis. When her friends help her with something, Van Zuidam said they try not to make it a big deal.

“It doesn’t make me feel like I stand out,” she said.

Her faith also helps her accept her situation and gives her strength to get through the tough times. Van Zuidam, who has spoken to various religious groups about her battle with meningitis, said that everything happens for a reason, and that she was chosen to be an example.

“It allows me to get peace from what happened,” she said. “I’m able to be happy.”