'The fastest, most unsettling disease': one student's recovery from meningitis| Nov 18, 2013
On May 6, Peter Carruth ’14 was admitted to the hospital for symptoms of meningococcal disease. Carruth was the third case in a meningitis outbreak that has seen seven people hospitalized with the disease since March. He was hospitalized at the University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro for five days before being transferred back to University Health Services at McCosh Health Center for a week and a half of treatment.
“I woke up the morning after spring Lawnparties just feeling really miserable, which I first thought was mostly the hangover,” Peter Carruth ’14 said. “But my headache wasn’t getting any better, and I was still feeling very awful.”
Carruth lay in his bed until 2 or 3 in the afternoon. Even with a Junior Paper assignment due the next day, he laid down “just sleeping and being sick,” roommate Max Rubin ’14 said. Despite attempts to wake and drag Carruth out to the common room, Rubin’s efforts were in vain.
“He just sat on my couch being incredibly out of it, just trying to sit up and breathe,” Rubin added.
Carruth soon began complaining about an excruciating pain in his feet. Rubin looked and noticed severe blisters and purple bruises all over Carruth’s feet.
“What’s wrong with your foot?” Rubin said.
“I don’t know,” Carruth said.
“Do you want to go to McCosh?”
“That’s probably a good idea.”
Department of Public Safety officers took Carruth to University Health Services that night. But it was late in the evening, and UHS didn’t have any doctors that could examine him, he said.
“They saw me slowly shuffling across the floor, and they were like ‘He’s going to the hospital,” Carruth explained. After takingCarruth's temperature and heart rate, he and Rubin were immediately taken to the emergency room at University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro.
Carruth was given a standard examination at the emergency room, but by then “the doctor was pretty sure what it was,” he said. Other doctors explained again to Carruth the major symptoms of the disease and noted that the severe rash on his foot was a clear telltale sign.
He was admitted that instant. Immediately following his hospitalization, the University began contacting Carruth’s closest acquaintances, Rubin said.
UHS asked Carruth’s roommates and friends to develop a detailed list of the names of all who had associated with Carruth for the past two weeks. This process, known as contact tracing, is a standard part of health authorities' response to a disease outbreak.
“It was sort of McCarthy trial-ish,” Rubin explained. “We would write down a name and that person would be brought into [McCosh].”
Ultimately, Carruth estimates approximately 50 people were contacted by UHS and told that they should receive Cipro, an antibiotic that is a preventative measure against meningococcal disease. This included the entirety of both the Princeton and Dartmouth club lacrosse teams, with whom Carruth had competed a few days before.
While UHS worked to identify his close contacts, Carruth continued to receive care at UMCPP. He was in the hospital for five days starting Monday, a period during which he received a spinal tap to conclusively diagnose the source of his illness and what he said was a “pretty heavy dose” of intravenous antibiotics.
Carruth was discharged from the hospital on Friday of that same week and moved back to UHS, where he received care for another week and a half. By then he had recovered enough to return to his dorm room, where he finished what was left of the semester.
Even after Carruth was allowed to leave medical facilities, it took a while for his life to return to normalcy.
“Even once I was back in my dorm, I was fairly limited in activities because I couldn’t move quickly or perform the way I did before I was sick,” Carruth noted.
“I also couldn’t lift as much,” he added, referring to his current ability to lift weights.
Carruth missed two and a half weeks of school, including Reading Period and the first week of final exams. He worked with Dean of Butler College David Stirk to get extensions for his assignments. He took just one of his scheduled final exams in the spring, postponing the rest until the start of the fall semester.
Carruth is now completely recovered. He has moved past his bout with the disease, but has been contacted by the University this fall to check up on the details of his case as part of the outbreak investigation.
“I know they’re keeping detailed logs of all the information of all the patients — what groups I’m involved in, what eating club I’m in and all sorts of stuff like that — so that they could place any sorts of connections between different cases,” Carruth said.
It’s not clear where he contracted the bacteria that caused his illness, Carruth said, since bacterial meningitis is a difficult disease to track. “They asked me a whole bunch of questions and told me it could be passed through carriers, so there’s no way of knowing who I was around that had it that was carrying it,” he said.
An estimated five to 25 percent of the general population can carry meningococcal bacteria in their noses and throats without manifesting symptoms, a recent University health advisory email said. Because it is possible to become infected from close contact with a person who may not appear to have the illness, the University is recommending all students who experience high fever, stiff neck or headache to report to UHS immediately.
“I was with him all through Lawnparties as well, and he went from being 100 percent perfectly healthy to practically dead in a matter of like 15 hours,” Rubin said. ”It is the fastest, most unsettling disease I’ve seen in my life.”