Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2007

MRSA mom is on a mission to educate

Her son, a freshman football player at Poolesville High, was hospitalized with the deadly infection

E-mail this article \ Print this article

Charles E. Shoemaker⁄The Gazette
Keeping cuts and abrasions covered with bandages, as was done for this Gaithersburg High School football player Friday night, is key to protecting students from contracting methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA.
When 14-year-old John Calantonio developed a 105-degree fever in late August, his blood tests were normal and doctors couldn’t find signs of an infection. But his mother, Marci, had her doubts.

‘‘It was a gut intuition,” the Poolesville resident said Monday. ‘‘You know when something with your kid isn’t right.”

On Sept. 4, about five days later, she said, John was hospitalized after being diagnosed with a blood infection caused by methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, a strain of the staphylococcus aureus bacterium that is resistant to certain antibiotics.

MRSA infections, which are common in hospitals and among people with weakened immune systems, are cropping up in schools across the county. As of Monday evening, 19 cases had been reported to Montgomery County Public Schools, said Brian K. Edwards, chief of staff to Superintendent Jerry D. Weast.

John Calantonio had more than one emergency room visit before he was correctly diagnosed. Over the course of several days he was vomiting and unable to walk; his mother gave him pain relievers every two hours to keep his fever down.

Yet his blood tests were normal, Marci Calantonio said. He did not have an elevated white blood cell count, which occurs when the body is fighting an infection. Calantonio, a medical transcriptionist, insisted that John receive a blood culture and doctors discovered the bacteria, which destroys white blood cells.

John was released from the hospital on Sept. 12, Calantonio said, but after four weeks on an IV, he is still on medication and receiving weekly blood tests with the possibility of the infection recurring. He is not yet allowed to engage in physical activity because the infection spread to his muscles and bones, his mother said, and he must sit out the rest of his freshman football season at Poolesville High School.

Although MRSA most commonly manifests itself as a skin infection, in John’s case the bacteria went straight into his bloodstream through a cut or abrasion, Calantonio said. Serious infections can also cause pneumonia or spread to the lungs, joints, bones and heart valves.

‘‘He probably would have died if he had been in that state for another 24 hours,” Calantonio said. ‘‘... Let’s not call this a minor skin infection.”

Calantonio has been using her family’s personal experience and her medical background to educate the community about MRSA. She stressed that the bacteria, most commonly transmitted by skin-to-skin contact, can be found anywhere and should concern more than just student athletes.

‘‘We all need to get in the habit of knowing that we carry it everywhere we go,” Calantonio said. ‘‘You have to disinfect your house the same way you want the school disinfected.”

The message about taking precautionary measures such as hand washing and keeping wounds clean and covered up has hit home for some county students.

‘‘At school, a lot of people are talking about it,” said 15-year-old Chris Thomson of Gaithersburg, a junior varsity soccer player at Quince Orchard High School, which has had one MRSA case. ‘‘They want to wash their hands after they sneeze. They are just being really careful about touching things and washing their hands.”

‘‘You have to rely on the school to put the correct controls in place,” his father, Dennis Thomson, said. ‘‘We are doing things to try to protect the kids. My son plays soccer and he has some sores on his legs. We coated them and we bandaged them, which we normally don’t do.”

Many schools in the county have responded by cleaning the buildings and providing more soap and sanitary products. Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring, which has recorded seven cases, has been providing disinfectant wipes in the locker room since the outbreaks started, said Shari Kottler of Olney, whose son plays varsity football.

‘‘They are doing a better job of disinfecting the equipment for the kids,” she said. ‘‘The school jumped on it pretty well once they had the information.”

Schools have discussed how to stay safe with students.

‘‘Our coaches have made us aware, just telling us to make sure our cuts are taped up and to never share pads,” said 15-year-old Danny Shannahan of Bethesda, who plays junior varsity football for Bethesda’s Walt Whitman High School, which has also reported one case.

Others in the community are glad that the situation has not caused hysteria.

‘‘Everyone is worried about infectious diseases, but I like that the school didn’t panic and shut down,” said Bethesda resident Jonathan Adler, father of three children at Whitman, all athletes.

Marci Calantonio agreed that in order to prevent MRSA from spreading, it needs to be handled sensibly and proactively.

‘‘There isn’t a simple fix for this complex problem,” she said. ‘‘... It didn’t start last week and it’s not going to end next week. Cavemen probably had it.”