Parents have an important message after 'beautiful, vibrant' daughter's tragic death in college

Rachel Grumman Bender
Beauty and Style Editor

At 18, Sara Stelzer was in the prime of her life — a college freshman excited for her classes and being part of a sorority at San Diego State University — when she suddenly became very ill.

She called her parents on a Sunday night in the fall of 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 mom, 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.

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

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.

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.”

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

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

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

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.

Meningitis B outbreaks occurred on 20 different U.S. college campuses from March 2013 to November 2017, according to the NMA. Some schools are starting to take action. Starting in the fall of 2019, 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,” says Greg.

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,” Greg says. “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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