2009-07-16 / Local & State

Scary Lesson For PA Teen Who Declined Vaccine

By Dan Berrett

STROUDSBURG, Pa. (AP) - Derek Horn is lucky to be alive.

At the end of March, the East Stroudsburg University freshman found himself battling flu-like symptoms. At first, his health started to improve. But as the week drew to a close, and he went from his jazz listening class to psychology on campus, the 18-year-old could feel his condition worsen. His stomach ached and his fever spiked.

"I started to feel ridiculously sick,'' said Horn. "It just came out of nowhere.''

That night, the Stroudsburg High School graduate returned to his family's nearby home. After visiting the doctor, who diagnosed his illness as the flu, he said, Horn spent the wee hours of the evening in a haze, rolling on the floor and vomiting.

On Saturday morning, his mother saw him lying on the couch in a daze. Purple spots marked his body, from his feet and arms to his chest and face.

"Get up, we're going to the hospital,'' said his mother, Horn remembered. He just stared at her.

They arrived at Pocono Medical Center, where doctors performed a spinal tap. They quickly diagnosed bacterial meningitis. Generally more severe than the viral kind, bacterial meningitis can be life threatening if not properly treated.

Horn's high temperature and blood pressure brought him to the verge of a coma, he said. Doctors put him in a medically induced coma for four days to better control his condition. "It was 50-50 whether I'd be OK,'' he said.

When he emerged from his coma, Horn's body felt battered - especially his feet, which were swollen and purple. "The first day was kind of like a blur, like a dream sequence,'' he said.

He was both groggy and unable to sleep, but eventually improved enough to be moved from the intensive care unit to a regular room.

"I couldn't walk. I was just extremely weak,'' he said.

Visitors streamed in: his girlfriend, his father and stepfather, and his close friends. The university's president, Robert Dillman, also stopped by to check on him.

A few days later, Horn moved to Good Shepherd's rehabilitation facility, where he received physical and occupational therapy. Too weak to hold himself up, Horn had to use a walker. It came as a blow to the young man, who was then still 18 and accustomed to feeling healthy and active. "I'd always be hiking, and I did have a job stocking shelves,'' he said.

Though he was discharged on Easter weekend, Horn is still recovering and dealing with his weakened body, fatigue and poor sleep.

He also is coping with an emotional side effect from the disease. He said he has found himself feeling anxious about his health, which he had never experienced before. "I think something bad's going to happen,'' he said. "The disease just screws up your whole body.''

Horn said he wanted to share his story for two reasons: prevention and gratitude.

College students have a "modestly increased risk'' for meningococcal disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is especially true of those who live in dormitories or residence halls.

Students who live on campus are required by state law to be immunized against meningococcal disease or to complete a waiver of exemption. Horn, who lived at home, opted out of a shot.

"I didn't even really know what it was or anything. They asked me at the doctor's office, 'Do you want it?' and I said no,'' he said.

But he implored his fellow students not to make the same choice. "Just get the shot,'' he said. "It's not worth it at all.''

The experience also taught him the importance of thankfulness.

He is grateful for the medical care he received at the hospital. "Pocono Medical Center saved my life,'' he said. "I want to say thank you to everyone at the hospital for really helping me out.''

Horn, who celebrated his 19th birthday in May, also said he has come to treasure simple pleasures more.

"I just really wanted to tell everyone that might read this to not take for granted family and friends and just all the small things in life,'' he said. "Just try to be happy with everything you have because you might not be here tomorrow.''

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