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October 26, 2002

'Such a great boy'

Oct. 26, 2002

Sparks mother remembers her son, a victim of bacterial meningitis, by trying to raise public awareness of the disease.
Sevil Hunter

Kim McClintock often stares at the picture of her 6-year-old son, Shane Michael. If she looks long enough into his eyes, she believes she may be able to understand the reason behind her sudden loss.

“It’s his last photo,” said McClintock as she held the framed portrait. “Everyone keeps telling me that now he’s my angel and he has given me a job to do. I would really like to believe that, but it’s not that easy.”

The sweet face in the photo resembles her in many ways: the slender nose, the way the lip curls, the honey blonde hair and clear blue eyes. But there was so much more to her child, McClintock said. So much more that his elementary school mourned his death for weeks after knowing him for less than two months.

Shane died Sept. 30, three hours after he was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis. The boy, who suffered from what his mother thought to be the flu, became the fourth meningitis case in Washoe County this year. Shane was the first fatality in seven years.

About the same time, county health department investigators scrambled to find a connection between Shane and a fifth victim, a Reno teenager who had contracted the terrifying infection. They found none.

The teen survived. Shane didn’t.

Shane’s family and neighbors who were in direct contact with the boy took antibiotics twice a day for two days to stop the spread of infection. Hidden Valley Elementary School Principal Jeanne Ohl made sure support teams and counselors were on hand to help anyone — young or old — with questions, concerns and fears. She also sent letters home to parents detailing symptoms. While health officials ruled that Hidden Valley’s 422 pupils faced no threat of contamination, the principal knew young hearts still needed attention.

Schoolchildren, teachers, parents and neighbors wrote letters to Shane’s family. Sympathy cards included lengthy messages of encouragement, while others just said sorry. Strangers baked, cooked and prepared meals for McClintock and her three older children.

People turned out in numbers for a memorial service on Oct. 8 to celebrate the young boy’s life. They talked about how he loved motorcycles, snowboards and scooters. He loved to go fast. Classmates laughed when they remembered how the first-grader sat on the girl’s side of the bus because he wanted a good view of skaters at Rattlesnake Mountain Skatepark. Kids cried when they released 100 green and purple balloons to heaven and said goodbye.

McClintock never has seen such an outpouring from a community, especially one she barely knows.

“They treated us like family,” McClintock said. “They really cared for us in our time of great pain, sorrow.”

Now, she’s committed to educating parents about meningitis and raising awareness of the disease so that another family may be spared her misery.

“How do you go on with your life when your little one has been taken so soon, so unexpectedly?” she said. Through tears, she continued, “You can’t go on unless it makes sense. Right now, it doesn’t. But, somehow, I have to carry on on behalf of my little boy. Something positive, something good has to come out of this because Shane was so special.”

‘Meningitis does exist’

Meningitis is an infection that causes inflammation of the tissues surrounding the brain and spinal cord. There are two forms of meningitis, viral and bacterial. Symptoms read the same, while viral meningitis generally is less severe and resolves without specific treatment. Treatment and outcome for a bacterial infection, caused by Neisseria meningitdis, is another story. Also called meningococcal meningitis, it becomes deadly when bacteria penetrate through membranes and flood the victim’s spinal fluid, which has no white blood cells to battle infection. It poisons the bloodstream with toxic bacteria.

No one is immune. However, bacterial meningitis most often strikes people with lower immune systems, infants, teens and young adults, and thrives in such places such as college dorms, schools and areas where people live in close proximity.

“It’s the most terrifying thing I have ever seen,” McClintock said. “What’s so scary is that it could be easily shrugged off as a cold. I never imagined my boy could be so sick.”

Many people dismiss symptoms as a touch of the flu or a cold. In most children, symptoms include headache, fever, stiff neck and nausea.

“People have heard of spinal meningitis and they think it doesn’t exist anymore, just like TB. But the fact is, meningitis does exist and it does happen,” said Pam Young, a nurse with Washoe District Health Department’s communicable disease program.

Meningococcal meningitis strikes more than 3,000 Americans every year. About 15 percent of its victims die. In Washoe County, 28 people have suffered from meningococcal meningitis since 1992. The state has recorded 56 cases from 1996 to 2000, the most recent figures available. One of the most well-publicized cases occured in 1998, when Stead teen Jelena Hatfield was struck with the disease. Surgeons amputated her legs and fingers to save her life.

“The main message we want to get out is when a child has a fever and a headache, that is a red flag,” Young said. “If the child has a fever and is not eating, is confused or is difficult to arouse, get them to the emergency room.”

Timing is critical. By the time an infected child gets medical attention, it’s often too late.

Meningitis takes hold

Sunday was Shane’s day to play. He had spent the morning of Sept. 29 wrestling with friends outside his home at Bristle Pointe Apartments on Longley Lane.

His family had moved to Reno from California two months earlier, and he made friends fast.

On that day, he tired quickly.

He told his buddies he would catch up with them later, and headed home. He walked in the door, smiled at his mom and headed to the kitchen to make his favorite cheese sandwiches. He felt better after eating and decided to head outside for more play.

Shortly after, he returned home. His demeanor had changed. He was quiet and limping. He told his mom his leg and back hurt and he went inside his bedroom and napped for an hour. Shane had suffered from migraines in the past and when he woke up he had a raging headache.

His mother, Kim, told him to take it easy, to rest and she gave him some Tylenol.

He felt feverish and limp. The child was coming down with a bad bug, and his mother monitored him through the early evening. His stomach ached and he felt nauseous.

It was after 11 p.m., when his condition had deteriorated so much she knew something was terribly wrong. He started to vomit and she called the hospital for help and talked to a nurse. As she listed Shane’s symptoms over the telephone, paramedics arrived and took the boy to Northern Nevada Medical Center in Sparks.

It was 11:29 p.m.

His mother, his sister, Erika, 18, and brother, Rhett, 23, who was in town that evening, were at Shane’s side as he fought for life. It was at the hospital that Shane’s mother noticed the purple-colored rash above her son’s collar bone and how it seemed to spread like an ink spill. Shane started to hallucinate and he had trouble breathing.

“He kept telling me there was a man peeking out from underneath the lights,” his sister said. “It would be really funny if it weren’t so horrible. He was so cute.” As Shane’s heart failed, the rash spread, blanketing his body. He lapsed into a coma while paramedics transferred him to Washoe Medical Center.

Once at the Reno hospital, doctors asked his mother to talk to her son in the hopes that it would awaken the boy. It was 4:40 a.m.

“It didn’t do anything and it all seemed so unreal,” his mother said.

Kim McClintock remembered the social worker’s brown hair and glasses and little else. She knew her older son threw a chair against the wall inside the blue room, where the family gathered in their time of grief. She remembered Shane’s father, Todd Luksa, who drove from Garden Valley, Calif., to be there with the family and how he barely said a word. He wept. She remembered how Luksa and their children cried for Shane that morning.

She knew that at 6:25 a.m. a medical team tried to resuscitate her boy. She knew that at 7 a.m. her son was pronounced dead. Blood poisoning from the meningitis had claimed his life.

“The rest I can’t recall,” Shane’s mother said. “All I know is that my boy died in that hospital. His face was covered by the rash. His little, strong heart had failed. I didn’t even recognize him when they pulled the blanket over his face.

“I didn’t even know what meningitis was at the time. I even told someone he had died of hepatitis. All I know is that something terrible had taken my boy. Something terrible that no other family should experience.”

Farewell to a young boy

Shane’s red motorcycle helmet hangs above the mantle at the McClintock apartment. His worn-out gloves rest underneath. Nearby, a poster-sized photograph of the boy on his snowboard sits against the wall. His siblings had it signed by professional skateboarders and athletes during a grand opening celebration of the Rattlesnake Mountain Skatepark on Oct. 5.

Shane would have loved it.

“He was such a great boy,” his sister, Erika, said. She walked out of the room and Kim McClintock continued the conversation.

She took him to a motocross event not too long ago in Sparks, she said. He was so excited. He even asked his mother if he could compete next year. She said yes.

“I told him I would do everything I could so that he could compete. I’ll never forget the look on his face when I said that. I meant every word.”

Shane had followed his father’s passion of motorcycles and motocross racing. Like his father, Shane felt at home zipping along dirt hills and charging up steep terrain.

“It was one area I didn’t mind that they shared,” his mother said with a gentle laugh. After their divorce, Shane was the one to mend the family as they packed their belongings in Garden Valley, Calif., and headed to Reno to start over.

“He was my friend-maker,” Kim McClintock said. “I always relied on him to make us smile, laugh and feel at home. He was always coming home telling me about all the new people he was meeting. It saved me a lot of time.”

His teacher even counted on the boy.

“He was a teacher’s delight,” said Mary Gastelecutto, Shane’s first-grade teacher.

She described the boy as delightful, intelligent and polite. Shane helped special needs children in the class. He was learning sign language so he could communicate with a deaf classmate.

“He was one of those kids you loved to teach,” Gastelecutto said.

Raising awareness

He taught his mother how to laugh again.

McClintock started to cry as she sat on the couch during a recent autumn afternoon. Outside, Erika talked to a neighbor who had come by to check on the family.

Three weeks after his death, about the same hour Shane would have stepped off the bus and dashed inside to give his mother a kiss hello, his family now researches meningitis.

Neighbor Janet Berg spends her mornings and evenings with the family reading over health reports. Before Shane’s death, the boy had spent many evenings at the Berg residence and played with their children.

“I will go into debt if it means I have to have my home tested for meningitis,” Berg said. “Health officials all tell me that it doesn’t work that way, but I am committed to this family and committed to helping them understand why Shane had to die. I want to make sure he didn’t get sick from my home.”

It remains a mystery why some people contract meningitis while others remain healthy.

“Some people carry spores in their nose and never contract the disease,” said Young, the county health department nurse.

But some are hit hard.

Bacteria which cause meningococcal meningitis are common and live naturally in the back of the nose and throat, or the upper respiratory tract. People of all ages can carry germs for days, weeks or months without becoming sick. Most often, being a carrier helps boost the body’s natural immunity to the disease.

“At any one time, around 10 to 25 percent of the population are carriers,” Young said.

Only rarely do the bacteria overcome the body’s defenses and cause an infection.

“That’s why it is so important for people, especially teens not to share lipsticks, ChapStick, cigarettes, beverages,” Young said.

Bacteria are spread between people by kissing, coughing and sneezing.

Kim McClintock never knew that. She thought meningitis was an ancient illness, a disease that was rid of a long time ago.

She never thought she would become an expert on the matter.

“I feel that I owe to the families that helped us so much to help them become educated,” she said.

Shane’s mother wants to continue the memorial fund on behalf of her son so that she can help other families in need of financial help as they survive the disease.

She knows that one in seven survivors will be left with a severe handicap, such as deafness or brain injury. Others are amputees.

She’s on a crusade. Kim McClintock spends her days searching the Internet for the latest news on meningitis. She has read lengthy reports from England and Europe.

She has printed hundreds of flyers. “Attention All Parents,” it reads. “Being well versed in the symptoms of all forms of meningitis will save lives.”

She believes that if Shane’s death can saves lives, then it will almost make sense.

“It has to,” his mother said. “I wouldn’t and couldn’t be doing this if it didn’t. For Shane, I have to continue.”


The family is accepting donations at the Bristle Pointe Apartments leasing office, 2050 Longley Lane, Reno, NV, 89502.


Reno pediatrician Dr. Cathy Wagoner says symptoms for bacterial meningitis are similar to that of other common childhood illnesses, such as the flu.

“Meningococcal meningitis is very serious and not only can you die, but if you survive you can have severe health consequences,” she said.

Young survivors can be left blind or deaf.

“So, it’s important to know the signs,” she said. “The symptoms we see with kids is fever and vomiting and that could be the same for a million other things as well. What is a good indicator is a mental status change, which is the kid starts to act strange or loopy in their behavior. They tend not to recognize their parents and that’s when it gets worrisome.”

A tell-tale dark bruising rash is another sign to head into the emergency room.

“Sometimes, the rash appears before other symptoms,” said Wagoner, who works at Washoe Family Care at Ryland. “That means to get medical attention fast.”

Bacterial meningitis symptoms can include one or more of the following: Headache, fever, rash, stiff neck, backache, nausea, vomiting, eyes sensitive to light, lethargy, chills, appetite loss, sleepiness, confusion, delirium.

Sevil Hunter

Bacterial meningitis facts:

o Meningococcal disease means illness caused by the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis, which is also called the “meningococcus.”

o Out of 100 people who get meningococcal disease, about 5 to 10 die despite good medical care.

Reduce risk of contracting meningococcal disease

o Stop smoking;

o Don’t let children be in rooms where people are smoking;

o Prevent upper and lower respiratory tract infections by receiving influenza vaccine (and possibly pneumococcal vaccine) and avoiding close contact with people with coughs and colds;

o Get pneumococcal vaccine if among the people for whom it is recommended.

© Copyright Reno Gazette-Journal, a Gannett Co. Inc. Newspaper.