A thin, nondescript scar on 17-year-old Jenna Mangiagli’s chin marks a near-death experience she cannot remember.
On the morning of Valentines Day, an 18-month-old Mangiagli awoke from her morning nap in her family’s Hermosa Beach home, fussy and hot. At the time, a flu epidemic was going around, so her mother Teresa didn’t think much of a little sickness.
“She was normally a happy little kid, but she felt cranky and had a little bit of a temperature,” Teresa recalled. “I’m thinking, it’s probably a little bug, not a big deal.”
When Teresa took little Jenna in for a bath, she noticed two red dots – “the size of pin pricks” – underneath one of her armpits. Meanwhile, her temperature continued climbing, steadily up to 106 degrees, although she didn’t feel all that hot. Puzzled, Teresa dialed the family pediatrician, a friend living nearby. The doctor advised her to take her to the hospital immediately.
About four hours later, little Jenna lay in an induced coma under Torrance Memorial’s intensive care, her entire body covered in red dots. It wasn’t the flu. Doctors diagnosed her with bacterial meningitis, a condition her parents knew little about.
During the three weeks of induced coma, they learned that bacterial meningitis, or meningococcal disease, is a serious and often fatal bacterial infection that causes swelling of the membranes surrounding the brain or spinal cord, or blood poisoning. It strikes nearly 1,500 people in the U.S. each year.
Once the bacteria enters the spinal cord, brain membranes or bloodstream, it can cause disability or death within hours of contraction. Among those diagnosed, roughly one in 10 lose their lives, and among those who survive, one in five live with permanent disabilities.
“Usually when people come out of having it, they’ll have amputations, brain damage, kidney struggles and stuff like that,” Mangiagli said. “But I just came out with scars.”
Now as a senior at Mira Costa High School, the young survivor hopes to raise awareness about this little-known disease, an insidious condition often misdiagnosed or untreated but preventable by routine vaccination. Particularly because adolescents and young adults are most susceptible to bacterial meningitis, Mangiagli is on a mission to catch her peers’ attention with her story and encourage them to get vaccinated.
Health officials recommend routine vaccination at age 11 or 12, with a booster dose at age 16.
“The problem is, there are a lot of areas in California where they don’t want to vaccinate their kids,” her mother Teresa said. “They think the vaccination is worse than the disease. But have you seen this disease and what it can do to your child? You’d be the first in line to get vaccinated.”
This past May, Mangiagli and her mother attended a two-day workshop in Atlanta hosted by NMA, an educational nonprofit organization founded by parents of children who have died or live with permanent disabilities from bacterial meningitis. Mangiagli had contacted the president, wanting to learn more about the disease that almost killed her as an infant. Now she is a team member, a survivor who spreads awareness about symptoms and prevention in his or her community.
Mangiagli plans to host assemblies through PACE, a student outreach organization, and provide a platform for others to share their own stories of loss or survival from the disease. She tested the waters last year, through the Italian Heritage Club on campus, of which she is co-president. A woman who lost her 17-year-old son overnight to the infection spoke during a club meeting, recounting how it began with a flu-like headache. By the time he was rushed to the emergency room, there was nothing else they could do for him.
“It’s dangerous because people don’t know the symptoms and they think it’s really rare, but really, it’s not,” Mangiagli said. “Listening to a real experience will convince people that it’s something you actually should be vaccinated for.” ER