After her daughter’s death, a mom raises awareness about the meningitis B vaccine.
For students at the Warren Alpert Medical School, some lessons don’t come from a textbook or lecture. Sometimes, to fully understand the impact of disease, these doctors in training need to hear from the affected patients and families themselves.
In May, Patti Wukovits joined an infectious disease lecture to describe for first-year medical students how bacterial meningitis took her daughter’s life.
Kimberly Coffey was a Long Island high school senior in June 2012; she looked forward to prom, graduation, and nursing school in the fall. Instead, her mother buried Kimberly three days before graduation in the prom dress she never got to wear.
It started with a fever and body aches. Kimberly went to bed thinking she had the flu, but when she woke, her entire body was in pain, “from her eyelashes to her toes.” Wukovits rushed her to the doctor, who sent her directly to a hospital.
“In the emergency room they immediately suspected bacterial meningitis,” Wukovits says, even though Kimberly didn’t exhibit its classic symptoms: headache and stiff neck. “They drew blood cultures, started antibiotics. She was in the pediatric intensive care unit in isolation within hours.”
In other words, the hospital did everything right. But it wasn’t enough. Kimberly developed sepsis—the meningococcal bacteria had infected her blood. Her kidneys failed and she suffered cardiac arrest. Nine days after she became sick, Kimberly was removed from life support and died. She was 17.
Wukovits didn’t understand how Kimberly could have gotten meningitis because she had been vaccinated against it. That’s when Wukovits learned that the vaccine Kimberly received—the only one available at the time—covered just four strains of meningococcal bacteria. A fifth, group B, is what Kimberly contracted.
In 2014, the meningitis B vaccine became available in the US. Wukovits started the Kimberly Coffey Foundation to make health care providers and parents aware that two meningitis vaccinations are needed to achieve full immunization.
“I had to do something,” Wukovits says. “I just don’t want anyone to go through what I went through … what Kimberly went through.” The foundation creates educational materials for parents and kids, and lobbies government regulators to pass laws mandating complete meningococcal vaccination.
Her visit to Brown was the first time Wukovits had spoken to student doctors, she says, but it’s a critical piece of getting the word out about immunization against all strains. “It’s the doctor’s responsibility to tell their patients and their patients’ parents about this vaccine. Every visit can be a vaccine visit,” she says.
In addition to raising awareness and getting more kids vaccinated, the foundation provides a scholarship to a nursing student from Kimberly’s high school. Among the scholarship requirements is documentation that the recipient received the meningitis B vaccine.