Late September is a bittersweet time in Oregon. Summer is ending and students are heading off to school; the sun hangs a bit lower and the wind blows a bit colder. For one McMinnville mother, September is the month in which her boy Drew was born. Holly Burch often goes to the skateboarding park he loved, early in the morning before the skaters get there, and thinks about the beautiful strong child that she lost to a vaccine-preventable disease.
In January 2006, her 18-year-old son Drew Ottley, a high school senior, came home not feeling well. “He had been fine when he went to school,” says Holly. Drew met up with some friends after school to hang out and skate. He was on the brink of becoming a professional skateboarder after winning competitions and attracting endorsements.
But at 8:30 p.m. on that January evening, Drew felt crummy. “He had fever and chills,” Holly says. “He ate some leftovers from dinner, but then vomited three times.” He then stripped to his shorts and climbed into bed. Holly didn’t think much of it because Drew had been much sicker in his life. And he was the third of five children, so Holly knew all about sick kids. “I checked on him during the night,” she says. “He was sleeping.”
But when she went to wake him for school, she was horrified to find him unresponsive with a raging purple rash covering one side of his chest. She performed CPR but he was already gone. Drew had died from bacterial meningitis just hours after he began feeling ill.
In the midst of her grief, Holly was completely devastated when a relative asked her, “Why didn’t you have Drew vaccinated?” She didn’t know there is a vaccine to help prevent meningococcal disease — her doctor had never told her.
Now Holly is on a mission to let other parents know that even healthy teens can get sick; vaccination can prevent adolescents from getting horrible diseases such as meningitis, whooping cough, diphtheria, hepatitis and the flu.
Making sure teens’ immunizations are up-to-date benefits the teens and helps protect the entire community. Unprotected teens can spread diseases to friends and family members who aren’t fully protected. And some diseases, such as meningitis, can strike teen populations hard. Although it’s relatively rare, college freshmen living in dorms have a five times greater chance of getting meningitis.
Most insurance providers cover immunizations, and the state-run Vaccines for Children program provides federally purchased vaccines at no cost for eligible kids. There is sometimes an administration fee, and insurance companies may charge a copay for immunizations. But Holly hopes that parents won’t mind paying a little for their teens’ shots. She wants them to realize that even though she didn’t know about the meningococcal vaccine, she would have gladly paid a fortune to save Drew’s life.
Parents should schedule a well-child check-up at age 11 or 12, and always check to make sure immunizations are up to date whenever they see their health care provider for sports physicals, injuries and mild illnesses. Holly says, “You need to be an advocate for your child’s health. Ask about immunization.”
Late September is a special time of year for Holly as she sits alone at the skate park, now named the Drew Gary Ottley Memorial Skate Park. On Sept. 29, 2010, Drew would have turned 23. He may have been a world famous skateboard star or fulfilled his dream of becoming an addiction counselor to help people change their lives—or even both. But his future was cut short by a hideous disease that may have been prevented by a simple vaccination. Holly says, “I want all the kids at the skate park to get immunized. I want every teenager in Oregon to get immunized. I want every teenager—period—to get immunized. What I don’t want is for one more mother to have to go through the agony of losing her child to a vaccine-preventable disease.”