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Despite vaccine, meningitis takes teen's life

Strain of bacterial disease kills immunized Bentley freshman

When Bentley College freshman Erin M. Ortiz went home sick last weekend, her mother did what any mother might do. She cooked comfort foods - corned beef, rice, and plantains - reflecting her daughter's Puerto Rican and Irish heritage.

"It was her favorite meal," said Brenda Rivera, a family friend.

But just hours after complaining of a headache and going to bed to sleep it off, Ortiz, 18, was dead of bacterial meningitis, a disease against which she had been vaccinated. Now, Ortiz's family hopes others will learn from their story.

"I'm all cried out," said her father, Raymond Ortiz. "I've got a hole in my heart. I don't think I'll ever be the same."

"We thought she'd be covered," he said. "They don't tell you that even if you get the vaccine, you're still susceptible."

Like most incoming freshmen, Ortiz was vaccinated last summer. Massachusetts law requires all college students to receive the vaccine. But it protects only about 85 percent of recipients and is not effective against all strains of the bacteria that cause infection in the brain and spinal fluid, which can result in brain damage, hearing loss, learning disability, or death.

"I wish we had a vaccine that worked 100 percent of the time," said Dr. Richard A. Moriarty, a professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. "But this is certainly better than not being immunized."

Doctors aren't sure yet what strain of meningitis Ortiz contracted or if she was one of the rare people the vaccine does not protect.

Ortiz first complained of feeling sick on Friday when she arrived home in New Hampton, N.Y., to see her family for the long weekend. She went to bed early and slept until the next afternoon.

On Saturday, her mother, Cathy, cooked her favorite dinner. That night, she woke with a terrible headache and her parents decided to take her to the hospital.

"She got dressed and walked down to the car," Raymond Ortiz said. "She walked into the emergency room."

Not long after, though, Ortiz's condition went downhill and she developed a fever of nearly 105 degrees. A spinal tap revealed meningitis, something the family had thought was not possible.

"When they told us, we were like, 'How can this be?' " Raymond Ortiz said.

Though she initially appeared to respond to antibiotics, by 7 p.m. Sunday, Ortiz had taken a final turn for the worse, the pressure on her brain causing irreversible damage.

"There's a spiritual connection you have," Raymond Ortiz said. "We looked at her and we knew she wasn't there."

Doctors kept her alive until Monday morning to harvest her organs.

In response to the case, Bentley College officials have been in touch with more than 50 students who had contact with Ortiz. About 30 of them have been given preventive antibiotics, said Gerri Taylor, the director of health services at the college.

"We are working day and night to identify students who may have had contact with her," she said. "It's a health service's worst nightmare. It's a college's worst nightmare."

Bacterial meningitis is less common and more lethal than viral meningitis. The bacteria, which can live undetected in the nose or throat, are more common on college campuses, where students living in close quarters can easily spread the bacteria by sharing drinks, cigarettes, or lip gloss. Massachusetts recorded 21 cases of bacterial meningitis last year.

"It's a nasty little bug," Raymond Ortiz said. "It can take away your shining star in 36 hours, just like it did mine."

Tania deLuzuriaga can be reached at deluzuriaga@globe.com.

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