Woman shares harrowing battle with bacterial infection that caused her limbs to ‘literally decay in front of me’

Rachel Grumman Bender
Beauty and Style Editor

It seemed that everything was going Jamie Schanbaum’s way — until it wasn’t. In 2008, the then 20-year-old was finally attending her “dream college,” the University of Texas, Austin. But while doing laundry at a friend’s house, she suddenly started to feel nauseous and got a headache.

Schanbaum chalked it up to coming down with the flu. But “it got so bad that I couldn’t even walk,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

What Schanbaum didn’t realize was that she was in the throes of meningitis — specifically, meningococcal septicemia, which is a dangerous bloodstream infection that typically presents as flu-like symptoms (fever, nausea, vomiting, headache, stiff neck) and can be fatal within days. With bacterial meningitis, bacteria damage the blood vessels, which leads to bleeding into the skin and organs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Septicemia means your blood is toxic,” Schanbaum explains

Jamie Schanbaum in the hospital in 2008, still managing to smile after multiple amputations. (Photo: Jamie Schanbaum)

“I think I really knew that it was scary and serious when I was in the hospital for the first five minutes, there’s a doctor talking to my sister and goes, ‘Where’s your mom?’” she recalls. Her sister explained that her mom couldn’t be there right now since she was five hours away. The doctor turned to Schanbaum’s sister and said, “She needs to be here.”

“We locked eyes and just saw fear,” Schanbaum says.

She ended up staying in the hospital for about seven months and says she was “watching my limbs literally decay in front of me. A lot of people didn’t think I was going to make it, let alone the doctors.”

Schanbaum had both of her legs amputated below the knee, along with fingers on both hands. “It was surreal to wake up and not see your feet there anymore, like at the end of the bed with the blankets,” she says.

When she left the hospital, she was about 80 pounds, had lost most of her hair, and was wheelchair-bound, she says. She felt “fragile.” Schanbaum got prosthetics for her legs, which involved a steep learning curve. However, she persevered and worked her way to even riding a bicycle again — an activity she had been passionate about. “When I got on the bike for the first time, it was magical,” she says. “I didn’t think I would have that back, and the little things do matter.”

Schanbaum says getting back on her bike after the amputations and being fitted with prosthetics was "magical." (Photo: Jamie Schanbaum)

After just two rides, Schanbaum joined the Live Strong Challenge bike race. During the race, Schanbaum met a cycling coach with the U.S. Paralympics, who asked if she’d be interested in joining the team. “I said, ‘Of course.’” She went on to bring home a gold medal from the U.S. Paralympics.

But Schanbaum didn’t stop there. To prevent other college students from facing the same dangerous and potentially fatal disease, she helped get a meningitis vaccine law passed in Texas in 2009 — named the Jamie Schanbaum Act — which requires “all college students in the state of Texas to be vaccinated in public and private facilities, so that was dorms and Greek houses,” she says.

Schanbaum won a gold medal in cycling at the U.S. Paralympics. (Photo: Jamie Schanbaum)

However, when a male University of Texas student, who lived off campus, died of meningitis, Schanbaum and lawmakers realized the law hadn’t been broad enough to protect him. “We amended the law to include all students in the state of Texas to be vaccinated when they’re entering college,” she says. Since the vaccine requirement went into effect in Texas, Schanbaum says, “There hasn’t been an outbreak since.”

She also founded the non-profit organization, The Jamie Group, which focuses on educating people about meningococcal meningitis — a disease she knew nothing about before enduring this “nightmare” herself. Schanbaum wants others to know that “meningitis is a fast-acting, killing disease. I don’t want anyone to wake up in the hospital wondering if they’re going to survive.”

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