November 1, 1979 to April 14, 2003
His smile was almost extra-terrestrial. It glowed. It was etched on his face, seemingly like stone. Nothing seemed to change the way he looked at life. The way he approached others. The way he treated his fellow man (and woman). It was almost as if he was a step ahead of the rest of us. We were lucky to have come in contact with this gentleman and very special human being. He had, at times, a challenging childhood, but he persevered. His parental upbringing was strong, if not at times, tough, but it obviously, worked. He was a committed student who was more comfortable leading than following. At an early age, it seemed he had an insatiable appetite for learning what was out there in the world; because of this, the world became a better place.
Jerry worked himself through school. He was on the fast track in management at a major hotel chain. His maturity, concern, care and commitment to his customer, belied his young age. The world was his oyster, he was moving. His world stopped, suddenly and needlessly on April 14, 2003. Jerry Greenwell was my son. He was my nephew. He was my cousin. He was my brother. He was someone who saw dreams not as unreachable but as things to be conquered and moved beyond. He was a man beyond his years who with each challenge in his young life, developed a more insatiable need to succeed, but succeed because of the people around him. These “people” were a girlfriend, his bosses, his fellow managers, his workers and his friends. He had an innate ability to motivate his peers into making something of themselves. He was able to encourage friends to go to college, get a better job, or simply become positive role models for others.
I guess that you could call him an unlicensed youth advisor. The only time Jerry would become frustrated was when friends sat around feeling sorry for themselves. His approach to life was to get out and live it, to try new endeavors, to generate new experiences. If he didn’t like the direction he took, or it didn’t work, he’d simply try something else. Along the way the learning experiences would only enrich his life. Jerry had a personality that drew people to him. It was almost uncanny at his age of 23 that he could have an effect on such a diverse group of people. Because of Jerry there was a large group of peers from all different walks of life who grew so close together they almost seemed like family. People at work looked forward to seeing Jerry smile each day. They said that it just made them feel good. But beyond the infectious attraction was a significant amount of substance, also. The General Manager at the Portland Marriott Hotel was eminently comfortable when leaving for home each weekend knowing that Jerry was in charge. Jerry’s sense of commitment and responsibility belied his youthful 23-year old stature. At Jerry’s memorial, his boss related a story about the only time Jerry had ever called him to ask his guidance on a problem. Surprisingly, Jerry needed to remove a customer from the hotel. The individual was loud, offensive, and obviously a bigot as illustrated by loud and obnoxious comments which made many patrons uncomfortable and Jerry outright mad. He called his boss to ask if he could have the patron removed from the premises. The boss returned the question to Jerry who confirmed that that was exactly what needed to be done. It was raining. The patron had, by this time, offended almost everyone he had come in contact with. No one would take him to another location. Jerry took time off, put the man in his car and transported him to another location. I know that if I could still speak to Jerry right now he would be yelling at me to stop crying and feeling sorry for him. Instead, he’d be demanding that I do something about this disease that so rapidly and mercilessly brought his short and so promising life to an abrupt halt. From somewhere up above, I know that he would take solace in someone paying attention to the value of life, doing whatever was possible to minimize the chance that this could happen to a single other individual. There can be no doubt that he is now allowing us to take a very clear direction- one which has only one end- an advocacy that ensures passage of law that requires college aged students to either receive an inoculation for meningitis, or provide each child and parent approaching age 16 an educational opportunity to know the risks associated with this debilitating and, oftentimes, fatal disease.
Jerry Greenwell’s life was filled with promise, happiness, friendship and stability. It was one where he lived each day to its fullest. It was this life that was snuffed out in only what seemed to be a few moments. It was this professional, a 6 foot 3 inch solidly built, exceptionally healthy young adult who woke on the morning of Friday, April 11th with what he thought might be the flu. He canceled an early engagement to stay home, sleep and attempt to kick his sick feeling. Throughout the day, his girlfriend called. He simply felt weak, continuing to believe he may have had the flu. His sick feeling continued into the evening. He turned down a social gathering in the evening. At 1:00AM, his roommates and girlfriend returned. He complained of his legs causing him some pain. As she attempted to rub his legs, she noticed a rash and spots. A call to her mother, a registered RN, resulted in a decision to go to the emergency room. He couldn’t get up. His roommates, sensing concern, literally carried him to the ER. He arrived at Maine Medical Center in Portland, at 2:00AM. By 4:00am in the morning he was diagnosed with an unknown strain of meningitis. He was placed in the Critical Care Unit. At that time we did not know that Jerry had already lost control of his bowels. We didn’t know that he was vomiting. We didn’t know until later that by 8 o’clock in the morning Jerry’s condition was on an hour-by-hour basis. We were told that Jerry was now in an induced coma. Events were occurring at a frenetic pace. But how could this be happening. What happened? What could do this to a kid that nothing could faze? Heck, the world was waiting for him with open arms! Geez, he had a future!!
What his mother saw when entering his room seemed almost a nightmare- six to eight IV’s with medication dripping into his body, monitors, a respirator, legs propped up on pillows, hands strapped to the bed rails so he couldn’t pull out the tubing giving him some sort of life. He was burning with a temperature of 105 degrees. Hour drifted into hour. A survey back into the waiting room couldn’t count the number of friends and family seemingly camped out on floors and in corridors. There were so many. Over 40 people from so many walks of life were waiting for some kind of good news. This kid, who only yesterday was a friend, a mentor, a supervisor, a partner, was now holding onto life by a thread. We just plain didn’t understand. We got some guarded good news. The disease specialist and other attending physicians stated that if Jerry survived 12-18 hours, his youth and good health would help the potentially life saving medication take hold. We passed the 12 hour mark and then 18 hours! Gradually, his heart rate and pulse increased in strength. Sunday morning, amidst empty coffee cups, bleary and blood shot eyes and determined faces, we began to regain hope. We asked the doctor to update us on Jerry’s chances, expecting some flicker of optimism. We got none. The doctor, almost resignedly, gave Jerry no more than a 5% chance at survival.
In the back of my frantic and obsessed mind, I heard one of the nurses tell someone not to rub Jerry’s legs (little did I know that his legs are already destroyed. The nurse simply did not want the person to rub the skin off of his leg). Another problem surfaced. The medication used to induce his coma state had to be stopped because his blood pressure was excessively low. Jerry was now drifting into semi-consciousness. While we are sure that he was able to hear us, he was so sedated and paralyzed by this point (although, again we had no idea at this time) that he was unaware of what was happening. Could they do a blood transfusion? Someone said that might help. No, the bacteria had already destroyed his veins. If a puncture was made, he might hemorrhage to death. What could be done? The culture taken yesterday would take another 24-36 hours to grow. Only then could the doctors be sure which of the three very strong medications they had to give him, but which together could eventually destroy him, could be eliminated. We could only hope.
Sometime around 3:00AM early Monday morning, the nurse woke his mother up and motioned her into Jerry’s room. She said that she had done all that could be done. His condition was very critical. His condition was being updated on a 10-minute basis. His mom needed answers. The nurse tried to oblige:
Jerry’s mom, “His legs, they’re gone?” ……………………. Hesitation.
“His kidneys?” ……………………. ”They shut down an hour and a half ago.”
“His lungs” ……………………. “We turned the respirator down to guard against further damage to his lungs, already operating at only 20% of capacity, now.” Had to turn it back up, though, because Jerry was trying to breathe on his own.”
“His heart” ……………………. “It went into A fib. The medication could cause his heart valves and veins to rupture and explode.”
At 6:30AM, after his mother informed the doctors and nurse that should it be required, to try CPR at least once, another nurse all of a sudden yelled, “Jerry what are you doing to me?” Just as another family member was coming into the room, the doctors yelled for a crash cart. Her son, and Jerry’s brother, blocked the room so that only medical personnel could get in, PR was administered for 20 minutes! There was no response. He had brain damage. It was over. No autopsy. By now we knew what snuffed the life out of this superstar. The culture had come back. It was no surprise. There was not even the opportunity to donate organs, everything was destroyed. Our son, friend, nephew, cousin, brother was gone. Lightning quick. It wasn’t a car accident. It wasn’t cancer. These would have been tragedies in their own right. This was much more of a silent killer. Meningococcal Septicemia would be two words etched on our brains for the rest of our lives. In the aftermath, the slow, painful, and agonizing rehabilitative process which is only now beginning, we are left to wonder what he could have done differently, what could we have done differently, what could the fine doctors, nurses and staff at Maine Medical have done differently? Nothing. Who doesn’t suffer from flu symptoms? Do we go to the doctor every time we have a slight temperature? Are we going to get paranoid? Of course not. But we can do something. Something that in the State of Maine has been ignored. Ignored at a time when one half of this country has passed or is now finally working on the passage of legislation that will require immunization or/and education about this tragic condition. We have a mission……a mission to not leave Jerry Greenwell’s memory in vain……a mission to do everything in our power to minimize the chances that 15-24 year olds will contract this killer-through passing a law that is being passed with rapidly increasing frequency around this country. The immunization costs $65. It has no side effects of any significance. It is 85% effective against 4 of the 5 strains. It lasts for 3-5 years. It can be a life giver- not a taker away. It’s a no-brainer.
Sure, it is a salve for those left to ponder why such a fantastic kid with his head on so straight with so many of his contributions still to come, had to die. But we want this, also to be our “dearly departed’s” legacy….. To, through death, save life. For there is no greater accomplishment…..
We love you, Jerry Greenwell.
Now let us attempt to live up to the lofty bar you have set.