Sep. 25—Thirty years ago, Karen Schloot was just a few years out of Manhattan High, working for a finance company in downtown Manhattan. Mark Brady was an intern at KU Medical School's Wichita branch, thinking he wanted to go into internal medicine.
Schloot, 23 at that time, went to a K-State football game on a September Saturday, then drove to Wichita the next day. She was supposed to start work there that Monday, filling in because the Wichita office of the company she worked for was short-handed.
She only made it for one day.
Fast forward three decades: Brady is an anesthesiologist in Johnson County, and Schloot — who now goes by Karen Schloot Munson — lives in Portland, a mother of two, including one in college. He's a grandfather; his son and son-in-law are both doctors.
But they made a plan, and she came halfway across the country and, for the first time since 1991, on Friday they saw each other. It was at a coffee shop in downtown Topeka. They hugged, and they shared memories of an episode neither will ever forget.
That Monday evening, Schloot Munson started feeling "really sick, throwing up and all that," she said. Her boyfriend at the time, who was in Wichita, took her to an urgent care center, where they gave her a shot of penicillin for what they figured was strep throat.
But a little while later, she started getting purple splotches all over her body, and, after calling the urgent care center back, they went to the emergency room at St. Francis hospital in Wichita.
That's where Dr. Brady found her. He was an intern, meaning he had graduated from med school at KU. As it happened, he did his last two years of medical school and his residency in Wichita, which is where he was from. So he was there, an MD but nonetheless in learning mode.
That turned out to be fortunate.
Because the hospital Schloot Munson went to was a teaching hospital, an intern is supposed to do things, to learn about them. So they ran a bunch of tests, even though the initial symptoms seemed to point toward the notion that she had strep and then an allergic reaction to penicillin. The rash-like splotches and her fatigue were odd, though, Brady said. By then she said she couldn't move her neck or lift her neck.
"Dr. Brady said, 'We've narrowed it down to toxic shock syndrome or meningitis. So would you like a pap or a spinal tap?'" Schloot Munson said. "I said, 'A spinal tap.' Now, I think to myself, 'What person says they want a spinal tap?'"
Brady had done exactly one spinal tap before, but he stuck the needle in her back to draw out the spinal fluid, which is supposed to be clear.
"I remember it clear as day," Brady said. "It was like milk. It was terrible."
They immediately put her on the highest-powered antibiotics available at that time. They had to try to support her blood pressure — it had dropped dangerously low — and keep her basic functions going. They ran the tests to determine that it was meningococcal meningitis. That's a rare and serious bacterial infection that is deadly if untreated. There's now a vaccine to prevent it, but that was not available at that time.
The spots? They were from damage to her blood vessels as a result of the meningitis.
Schloot Munson is still not sure where she got the infection, which a person contracts through an infected person coughing on them or other relatively close contact. What she does know, or at least what she believes to be true, is that she was the only case in Kansas in 1991.
She was in the ICU for a week, "in a drugged-up coma," as she puts it. She was in pain and was in isolation because she was contagious.
She can't remember too much, but she does remember that young Dr. Brady remained by her side constantly at the outset, and then came back to check on her routinely.
She's certain his diagnosis, his action, and his care saved her life.
"If not for him, I don't think I would be here," she said. "I'd be six feet under."
Brady does acknowledge that the fact that she went to a teaching hospital with an intern like himself was fortuitous. At a facility like that, they make a point of running a bunch of tests and ruling out all sorts of possibilities.
"No doubt about it," he said, "if she'd have gone to a smaller hospital, or if she'd have gone home, it could've turned out much worse."
She was in the downward cascade, he said; once a patient's blood pressure starts dropping as hers did, they're in really bad shape. "It would've been wonderful if we'd caught it earlier, but, well, we did save her life."
For Brady, it was not only a dramatic part of his internship, but it turned out to be a pretty unique moment.
After a year of heading down the path of internal medicine, he shifted gears and did his residency in anesthesiology. And as a result of that, he rarely gets feedback — or much interaction at all — with patients.
Physicians don't often get recognized for their work, he said, and maybe particularly not anesthesiologists. From the patient's point of view, "They come in, we put them under, and they go home." There's a lot more to it, of course, but the patient doesn't see that because, well, because they're knocked out.
He has a folder at his desk with all the thank-yous he's ever received over all those years. But for a patient to look him up, track him down, and get together to thank him, that's pretty special.
"It was one of the coolest, most gratifying cases I've ever had," he said.
It just so happens that he had a meeting Friday and Saturday in Topeka, so it worked out, halfway between Manhattan and Johnson County. Karen's mother and sister went along. They arrived at the coffee shop first, recognized Brady immediately when he walked through the door, and Karen hugged and thanked him. They visited for 90 minutes, all about the circumstances that led to that fateful day, exactly 30 years before, and what their lives have been like since.
The three-week episode was not without its physical consequences. Among other things, she had to have her toes amputated, as a result of the gangrene that took over when her white blood cell count was so low. She's lived with other scars, too.
"The way I've looked, for my children, my kids... that's normal to them," she said. "When they see other people with a disability like that... they don't stare. They think, 'Well, Mom's like that.' I'm grateful for that."
She's gotten along without toes, doing the things that people initially said she wouldn't be able to do. "I can't count to 20 anymore," she said with a laugh, "but I can do anything anybody else can do."
She wants to tell her story partly to encourage people to get vaccinated against meningococcal meningitis. That vaccine has been around for about a decade.
"I know vaccines are a big thing these days, but I tell all my friends, get your kids vaccinated," she said.
She also simply wanted to thank Brady, in person and publicly, and to let him and other people know the good that can come in life.
This week, she flew back to Manhattan, where her mother Jane lives again. (She had moved away but moved back this June.) Her sister and brother-in-law, Jill and Bob Campbell, live here. She planned to watch her nephew play a fall baseball league game this weekend at the K-State field, and catch up with family and friends. Full disclosure: She's a member of the MHS Class of 1986, and a fellow Lee Longhorn, like me.
But the point of the whole trip was thanking the man she credits with saving her life. He was taken aback by that; they pledged not to let another 30 years go by.
"I got to show him the life he saved. I got married, I had two kids. I had a great life."
Then she caught herself: "I'm still having a great life!"