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Meningitis sparks community kindness for Murray family

Published: Monday, Nov. 21 2011 7:38 p.m. MST

Jonathan Clark and his family celebrate as they start their van. The Clark family of Murray receive the keys to a Dodge Grand Caravan during a ceremony Monday, Nov. 21, 2011 at Sterling Auto body Centers in Midvale.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

MURRAY — The ads are prominent on radio, TV and on the Internet.

“It was a Tuesday. Becky said she didn’t feel well. On Wednesday, we said our final goodbyes.

“Not everyone who gets meningitis dies.”

With messages like these, health workers with the Salt Lake Valley Health Department are constantly warning Utahns to vaccinate their kids against meningitis, both viral and bacterial.

Viral meningitis is not as severe because doctors say it can’t be transmitted from person to person as easily. On the other hand, health workers are extremely concerned with bacterial meningitis mainly because it can be deadly.

“It’s carried in respiratory droplets, so people actually carry it in their noses and throats,” said Dr. Dagmar Vitek, medical director of the Salt Lake Valley Health Department. “If you share a bottle with someone or utensils, then you can give it to the other person.”

Pre-teens and teens are at greater risk for contracting bacterial meningitis. Symptoms usually include headaches, fever, nausea and vomiting. The disease can progress quickly to the point where victims are hospitalized and treated with antibiotics.

“But even if you’re treated,” said Vitek, “the mortality rate is roughly around 10 percent.”

Even if patients recover, they can sometimes suffer long term problems like muscle weakness or mental changes.

That’s the scenario that’s playing out for war veteran John Clark. Neither the Vietnam War nor the 1984 U.S. conflict in Beirut killed him — but bacterial meningitis nearly took his life.

In June 2011, Clark and his wife wanted to have a picnic. He started to move a 350-pound metal picnic table and became so extremely ill that he ended up in the hospital. When doctors revived him, they told him he had bacterial meningitis.

“It kind of changed our lives, money-wise,” Clark said.

A year ago, Clark was able to support his family because he made a good living. His wife, Chrystal Clark, didn’t have to work. He was pursuing higher education.

“I was driving truck and getting ready to go back to law school,” he said. “I just had one more semester to go.”

But the meningitis caused lasting health complications, making it difficult to hold down a job. They nearly lost everything, including their home. The couple are swimming in nearly $300,000 in medicals bills.

“John has always been my rock,” Chrystal Clark said. “When someone gets that ill, you have to dig a little deeper.”

She has been relying on public transportation and the kindness of friends and neighbors to get around. She needs help getting her 4-year-old Heather and 8-month-old William to the Salt Lake Head Start program. She also needs help getting around to look for work and to help her husband get to therapy twice a day, every day. It’s been a tough ordeal but she’s maintained a positive attitude.

“I've had some mommy moments where I needed a time out,” she said. “But what do you do? You laugh or you cry, right? But I choose to laugh.”

Now, through the Head Start program, members of the community — including Sterling Autobody in Midvale — pitched in to help the Clarks weather this storm. The company refurbished a 2005 Dodge Caravan. Other community businesses, private non-profits and regular folks, donated early Christmas presents for the family.

Chrystal says the new set of wheels will make life a little simpler.

“Jonathan can go for treatments. We don’t have to beg for rides,” she said.

And John Clark is just eager to get better so he can go back to providing for his family.

“I’m trying to get my strength back, my memory back so that I can go drive trucks again,” he said.

Once the overwhelming emotions of such kindness and generosity from the community settle, Chrystal Clark said she will now be able to look for work to support her family while her husband continues his daily IV treatments.

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