Parents' warning after daughter dies from 'flu' symptoms

Sara Stelzer was a freshman at San Diego State University when she contracted Meningitis B. Photo: Laurie Stelzer
Sara Stelzer was a freshman at San Diego State University when she contracted Meningitis B. Photo: Laurie Stelzer

The parents of a teenager who died just two days after getting symptoms of the flu, have issued a word of warning in a bid to stop others from suffering a similar fate.

Sara Stelzer was in the prime of her life — having just joined a sorority and started classes at San Diego State University — when she suddenly became very ill.

The family’s nightmare started when 18-year-old Sara called her parents on a Sunday night in 2014 to tell them she had a headache.

By Monday morning, it seemed like Sara had the flu. Her parents told her to pick up some Theraflu and get some rest.

But then things suddenly took a turn for the worse.

Sara’s father Greg got a text from one of her friends, saying that his daughter was in the emergency room. Greg and Sara’s mum, Laurie, immediately drove to the hospital.

“Every bit of information that we got along that ride was worse than the last piece of information,” Laurie tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

The parents tried to reassure themselves by focusing on the fact that Sara was a healthy teenager who had never been seriously sick before. “They’ll save her and she’ll be fine,” Greg recalls thinking.

Sara's mother Laurie describes her daughter as a "ray of sunshine." Photo: Laurie Stelzer
Sara's mother Laurie describes her daughter as a "ray of sunshine." Photo: Laurie Stelzer

By the time Sara’s parents arrived at the hospital, their daughter was in a coma in the intensive care unit (ICU).

The neurosurgeon told them that they weren’t seeing any brain activity and that they believed she had bacterial meningitis.

“We just didn’t know anything about bacterial meningitis,” says Laurie. “We didn’t know to even ask about those symptoms.”

Sara’s parents would soon learn that bacterial meningitis moves swiftly and can be life threatening if not treated immediately. In Sara’s case, it was too late to save her life.

Adds Greg: “All of a sudden, within two days, we lost her.”

After losing their youngest child, whom Laurie describes as “tall, beautiful, vibrant — really a ray of sunshine,” she says: “It was a very hard hole to come out of.”

Although Sara had previously received the meningitis vaccine, it was only for the “A, C, W and Y strain — not for the B strain,” notes Laurie. “They came out with the meningitis B vaccine shortly after she passed away.”

Laurie shares that because the meningitis B vaccine isn’t mandated, many teens and young adults are unknowingly unprotected against the dangerous disease.

According to the US’ National Meningitis Association (NMA), teens should ideally ask for the meningitis B vaccine at their 16-year doctor’s visit.

Sara with her mom Laurie Stelzer. Photo: Laurie Stelzer
Sara with her mom Laurie Stelzer. Photo: Laurie Stelzer

In fact, one of the most at-risk groups are teens and young adults ages 16 to 23, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and people who live in crowded settings such as university housing.

The NMA also suggests that teens get the second dose of the meningitis ACWY vaccine at the 16-year visit and get both shots at the same time in order to simplify the process.

There is also a second dose of the meningitis B vaccine. “The timing of the second dose varies slightly depending on which brand of B vaccine a patient’s healthcare provider uses, so patients should follow the direction of their healthcare provider,” according to the NMA.

To honor Sara’s memory and to spare other parents the pain of suddenly losing a child to the disease, Laurie and Greg have been dedicating themselves to raising awareness of meningitis B — including teaching the signs and symptoms to look out for — and the importance of getting teens vaccinated.

Starting last year, San Diego State University will require that students 23 years old and younger be vaccinated against meningitis B before starting college.

“We hope that eventually all schools require all incoming freshman to be vaccinated,” Greg says.

The father also has a message for teens and young adults: “For all the young students out there, our daughter was just like you...was healthy, was in the prime of her life.”

“And in a matter of a few days, she died from bacterial meningitis. I encourage all those students, for her sake, to get vaccinated.”

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