When three students fell ill from meningitis-causing bacteria— which can be fatal—it meant the clock was ticking. And to get through this, it would take everybody’s help. A few of the people in the eye of the storm recount that week for us.
Sunday, January 31
Early in the morning in Swig Hall, the roommate of Bradley Sheffield ’19 telephoned Campus Safety. An ambulance was called. Sheffield was taken to the ER of O’Connor Hospital around 7 a.m.—confused, agitated, and with a burning fever. Dr. Brian McBeth suspected meningitis; a spinal tap confirmed it. McBeth phoned Sheffield’s parents. They headed for the airport. More calls were made.
Christopher Shay | Assistant Vice President for University Operations:
It had been an incredibly difficult week the week before, and so I had settled in to an honest-to-goodness Sunday nap after playing volleyball with my daughter. I woke up to an absolute panic situation within a 30-second phone call. With a lot of our emergencies you know exactly what you have to do, you know what your tools are. With meningitis, it could go from two people to 200 in a flick of an eye.
Sean Collins | Director, Environment, Health, and Safety, University Operations:
There was a lot of anxiety about the unknown because of the severity of the illness. The mortality rate’s pretty high, even when caught early. And not knowing—since there were two to three cases that came about pretty quickly—how widespread this was gonna be. At other schools, they had cases trickle in for months and months and months. Were we gonna be able to nip this in the bud—or was this going to be a much wider thing?
Peggie Robinson | Clinic Manager, Cowell Center, Student Health Services:
Typically the Cowell Center is closed on Sunday. We opened that evening so that we could evaluate students for what is called PEP, post-exposure prophylaxis, which is a treatment of one Cipro 500 mg tablet. It was obviously crowded, and there was a lot of anxiety and concern. This is my 16th year here. Certainly we get training, and we learn about these types of things, but I’ve never been involved in something to this degree. I was here when we had H1N1, and we did a lot of different services and a vaccination clinic for that. But this had a whole different tone to it. It’s very scary to think that we could lose a student. In the midst of our response, foremost in our thoughts was “I hope these students are gonna be okay.”
“With a lot of our emergencies you know exactly what you have to do, you know what your tools are.”
Christopher Shay: A significant number of people had presented at Cowell, and a lot of our resources were headed over there—to hand out Cipro and make sure that everybody was calm and doing well. It was amazing to go from nobody at Cowell to a fully operational center that treated over 100 students in a very, very short period of time. That was the first real marker of success, that the campus had come alive, responded, and we were up and running in no time.
At O’Connor Hospital, dozens of SCU students arrived also asking for Cipro—and wanting to know what was happening. They were met by Fr. Jeffrey Baerwald.
Jeffrey Baerwald, S.J. | Assistant Dean, Office of Student Life:
It was never frustrating; it was just more of you kind of feel helpless, because you don’t have the answers. You don’t have those critical pieces of information that can help somebody alleviate some of their anxieties.
Sheffield’s parents flew in from Arizona to be with their son at the hospital.
Michael E. Engh, S.J. | President:
We gathered at his bedside to pray for him and anoint him with the sacrament of the sick. He was comatose. It was heartrending to see his parents when their son was in such a state. —As reported in the Washington Post.
The president convened the policy group—including Provost Dennis Jacobs, Chief of Staff Molly McDonald, and other campus leaders and staff who would steer the response to the crisis in the days ahead—and lead hands-on work. First, the group met by phone Sunday evening, then in person throughout the week. Some of the work would be on campus and with the immediate community—first and foremost, taking care of any students who were ill. It also meant taking care of those students’ families who were here—as well as keeping open communication with those who couldn’t be here. Then there were the rest of the student body, faculty, staff, and parents. Sunday evening emails were sent by the provost to all those members of the SCU community, informing them of the situation.
For some working at SCU, the stake was personal.
Michael Hindery ’76 | Former Vice President for Finance and Administration:
I talked to my son Misha [a freshman] on Sunday evening, and he wasn’t feeling well. But we didn’t connect that with other things going on.
Monday, February 1
Jeanne Rosenberger | Vice Provost, Student Life:
Over the course of the next 48 hours, we had students go to the hospital with symptoms. In some cases they would get an antibiotic; in other cases their symptoms were such that the doctors would do blood work and a spinal tap. We were constantly monitoring back on campus—Who went to the ER? What do we know about them? Have their parents been contacted? Is there a roommate? At the same time, once the county confirmed that Student A [Bradley Sheffield] had meningitis, they wanted us to go back to the prior week and say, “Where was this student, and who might have been exposed?” We kept building out a list, and then we contacted students and said, “If you have these symptoms, go to the Health Center.”
On Monday we had confirmation that we had one student who actually had it—and there were all kinds of rumors about other students who may or may not have presented at various hospitals with flu-like symptoms, so the situation grew dim.
I told my son, “Yeah, go get the antibiotic.” We had two students in the hospital by then, so we were pretty full blown into the response. But 10:00 Monday night he calls, and he’s miserable. So it’s like, “Okay, let’s go to the ER,” because he had these symptoms. They did a blood test and said he didn’t have it, so at 2:30 a.m. Tuesday they sent us home.
“Would this spread, was he going to come through it? It was pretty traumatic all around.”
—PRESIDENT MICHAEL ENGH, S.J.
Fr. Jeffrey Baerwald:
More than a couple of students, because their symptoms looked so much like meningitis, had to go through a lumbar puncture to get that ruled out. Some tolerated it well, but it’s a nasty procedure, and a good number had really severe responses to it. So a number of those families came up to be with their sons or daughters through that. It was Super Bowl week. And so, without hesitation, University housing was provided to families so that the families would have a room to go back to, a place to sleep, because hotel rooms were just not there.
Tuesday, February 2
At 11:47 a.m. Santa Clara County Public Health said on a conference call, “We’re confirming the serogroup—serogroup B.” That’s when they told us we needed to gear up for a mass vaccination clinic on Thursday.
All three students with meningitis had received the standard vaccination—but this was a different strain of meningitis. The vaccines for it had only been approved by the FDA in late 2014 and early 2015. (Misha Hindery had actually received the MenB vaccine—though the family didn’t know this until Saturday.)
Clinics held at University of Oregon and U.C. Santa Barbara [which had dealt with a meningitis outbreak in 2013] took two months to go from the decision to hold the clinic to executing it. Whereas ours was: On Tuesday we decided we were going to hold the clinic on Thursday, which was absolutely unprecedented. This is where the story really diverts, from the president saying, “You’re gonna do it,” to, Okay, how are we gonna do it? At that point, we had no logistics, we had no clinic, we had no clinicians, we had no supplies, and, most important, we had no vaccine. And we really didn’t have any customers—we had no idea whether we would have a hundred kids or all 5,400 students coming through.
The president said, “We’re not only going to do this, but we’re going to do this in record time.” Setting the bar at that level let everybody focus on not if we were going to do it, but how. And that switch in an emergency, from if to how, is critical to success.
Even before President Engh articulated what needed to be done (perhaps in words not quite so informal), those at the policy group meeting understood: The clinic needed to open Thursday. Now it was a matter of rolling up sleeves to do it.
“This is what we need to do; this is how many cots we need, how many chairs, how many tables, how many screens … not to mention all the supplies.”
By 1 p.m., County Public Health had created an opportunity for the entire Santa Clara response team to be on the conference call with U.C. Santa Barbara. It was a little bit more than an hour, but the ability to ask firsthand questions about logistics and communication and setup and everything you could imagine, that was one of the most generous, awesome things—to have colleagues say, “Look, we’ve been through this, and we’ll help you.” They sent us floor plans for clinics; they had a list of supplies. That allowed us, by 4 p.m., to have a logistics meeting, and then that evening, at 6 p.m., to walk through the Leavey Center to say, “We’ve done everything that we know, at this moment, in order to open the clinic on Thursday.”
Some of the emergency planners had been fretting that it would take weeks and weeks to design the clinic. U.C. Santa Barbara went through 17 different designs. That was used as an objection—we’ll never be able to pull Thursday off. And I said, “We’re going to use the 17th design, and that’s the end of the story.”
“Ten to 15 percent of people that get meningitis die even if they’re treated right off the bat with antibiotics.”
In July 2015 there was an Emergency Operations Group exercise with the President’s Cabinet, a simulation of almost the exact scenario: meningococcal outbreak of the B strain, which is the same strain that we had.
You can’t do everyone else’s jobs. People have to pick up their pieces, especially as more and more pieces came into play. We had a structure in place. And people were phenomenal—committed and engaged, and passionate about doing the right thing.
Wednesday, February 3
Matthew Cameron | Assistant Vice Provost for Student Life:
I got a phone call at home about 7:15 in the morning from Jeanne Rosenberger. She said, “You need to be at a meeting at 8 a.m., and we’re gonna figure out how to open up the first meningitis clinic in about 26 hours.”
There were about 25 people [in the 8:00 a.m. meeting], two from County Public Health, the rest from the University. When people walked in, I had everybody who had been through a mass vaccination clinic raise their hands; of course that was only County Public Health people. Then I said I’d like the people who are medical professionals to raise their hands. That was Jill Rovaris and Peggie Robinson. I said, “Those four people are in charge. At any point and time, if there’s a conflict or a disagreement, they have command authority to make a determination on what’s necessary to make this clinic a success.” There’s a saying in the Valley—“one throat to choke.” You always want to have one person responsible for an activity. We had to go out and buy all new refrigerators for the vaccines, and one person was responsible for that; one person was responsible for getting pizzas for the students.
It was a short lead time to get set up. But except for the volunteers, all the other groups were doing what they normally do. Facilities was setting up the facilities. Auxiliary Services was providing food. Emergency Management and University Operations were providing some of the other resources. The logistics resources were coming also, and Risk Management was doing risk management, and Marketing and Communication was doing marketing to let students know about the clinics. So we were really doing our day jobs, focused on this one task.
Michael Hindery learns that his son is not out of the woods.
I thought Misha was okay, and then I got a call from him Wednesday morning saying the state public health people had called, and he had meningitis. So I left the meeting I was in to take him to the ER. It was scary. At that point, there’s a student in the hospital in a coma, another in the hospital, lots of kids with symptoms, but one of them is my son.
To staff the clinic, scores of volunteers were needed from the whole SCU community.
“Those were the moments when I said, ‘This is why you’re at Santa Clara.’”
The first email asking for volunteers went out around 11:30 that morning. I started with people within Student Life. As the day went on, that concentric circle, like the pebble in the lake, went out farther and farther. Volunteers came from all parts of campus: faculty, senior administrators—but the vast majority were staff from around campus.
Bradley Sheffield came out of a coma Wednesday afternoon.
By about 8 p.m. on Wednesday, we were full for Thursday shifts and all but maybe six on Friday. By Thursday morning, all were filled—96 shifts. The response, the outpouring—it was amazing.
We could have built the clinic and had nobody come, but the SCU Office of Marketing and Communications put together a publicity campaign in record speed. They went from design and development of a full publicity scheme to rolling it out in the same amount of time that it took us to build the clinic, within eight business hours. They were on the ground showing us the prototypes, working on wording, getting it out on the Web and social media, and making everybody aware that the clinic was ready to go.
Bob Owen, the chief information officer, knocked a home run with the Leavey Center. With reinvesting in infrastructure throughout the campus, we have WiFi in many locations, but they had not gotten to Leavey. I talked to Bob early Wednesday morning and said, “Is there any possibility? ’Cause if I have a thousand kids jammed in there for three-hour waits, it would be fantastic to have wireless.” He pulled that off in eight hours. That’s a two-year project.
Dr. George Han | Deputy Health Officer and Communicable Disease Controller, Santa Clara County Public Health Department:
We wanted to make sure that if something happened during Super Bowl week, we would be ready. We asked staff not to go on vacation that week. It just happened that the meningitis outbreak occurred during Super Bowl week, and so I think all of us were prepared.
Thursday, February 4
At noon, volunteers were invited to lunch and orientation. I read a children’s book called What Does It Mean to Be Present? As volunteers, we’re to be present with the students to walk them through the process, allay any fears. There were people who don’t like to get shots, and, at the same time, you can imagine they’re being bombarded either by the media or by their parents or by peers.
There weren’t enough needles in the county. We had to have them donated. Valley Medical Center donated some; Stanford donated some. When we open a clinic, we have to have enough needles. We were so grateful for all of the generosity of all our partners.
These vaccines have to be maintained at a certain temperature, from when they’re created to when they’re dispersed. That has to be monitored all the way through. We received a call Wednesday afternoon that said the 2,000 vaccines we’re expecting in the first day—just in time, delivered to the students—were under question. They’d been held at temperature but some paperwork hadn’t been signed or dotted. So those had to be quarantined, and we didn’t have vaccines for the first day.
We worked with County Public Health through the night and found that the FedEx of 1,500 vaccines [for Friday’s clinic] was going to be delivered Thursday. So we had 500 fewer and they were going to be late. It terrified everybody; we had already told students to line up.
When we were going to open the clinic on the first day, the students were lined up all the way back to the library, and the vaccines still weren’t there. The vaccines finally arrived just in time. We didn’t even put them in the refrigerators. We took them out of the coolers, put ’em on the box, and the first students were allowed to walk in. But for 15 minutes, the students didn’t know that there was no vaccine in that entire clinic.
The president of the campus student improv group was in line to get a shot. He came forward and said, “You know, I’ve been sitting here for an hour; it would have been great to have entertainment. If I bring back my buddies, could we perform?” Absolutely. So they performed for two hours.
Jill Rovaris | Director, Cowell Health Center:
A stranger came into the Cowell Center and identified herself as an MD. She asked, “Can I volunteer?” After we verified her credentials, I began to walk her over to the clinic. She told me, “You know, my niece was in line and told me, ‘I am getting out of this line, because it is just too long.’ I told her, ‘If you get out of that line, I am calling your mother.’” So the niece said, “Okay, I’m not gonna get out of line.” As a result of that, the aunt came to volunteer her services.
We had [practitioners] from the Red Cross and from the local hospitals, people who came in on their days off. We had a nurse from the company that provided needles for the clinic, who happens to be an R.N. When she saw that our lines were getting really long, she said, “Well, I have the credentials; I can help.”
We counted everyone who came through the door. But not everyone who came through the door was administered the vaccine. Some people were just there for moral support of students in line. There was a father who was there in moral support of his son—and to make sure his son got the vaccine. Another student was present with some kind of advocate or mentor. It was just really, really nice to see such an outpouring of compassion.
“If you treat it early and you know what you’re dealing with, okay. But people do die.”
At the vaccination clinic, the students themselves created the environment they wanted. “Why be miserable? We’re gonna be here.” That was inspiring. Thursday afternoon, my son still in the hospital, I’m walking around the clinic, and tears come to my eyes—because we’re doing this. It was just, wow. I’m sure it was 72 hours of emotion, and fear, and anxiety. But it was mainly, I think, tears of joy. There are 600 people in line, but we were making this happen. It’s just a pretty cool situation—community does conquer anxiety and fear.
“After I left the hospital and did more research, I was like, ‘Okay, I have this.’ The other guy has been in a coma, and that’s terrible.”
—MISHA HINDERY ’19
Misha Hindery ’19 | Student:
I was in the hospital, but because of rowing—I’ve been doing it for six years—I’ve built up that mental toughness to be like, “Pain is pain. I’m going to be sick. I’m going to get better.” It’s the same as rowing: I’m going to go into some pain for the next seven minutes, and then it’s all going to end. So I’m kind of like, “Please don’t overdramatize this. Let me recover.” Our coach, Jay Farwell, came to the hospital. One of the priests, Fr. Baerwald, came from Santa Clara. And then my parents—they were pretty great. Though when my mom came to the hospital, she was freaking out. I think everybody else was just as concerned—and like, “Please don’t give meningitis to me!”
Jay Farwell ’94, J.D. ’01 | Coach, Men’s Crew:
I’ve made a handful of hospital visits in my time at Santa Clara. From Day 1 with these guys, I preach that I’m here for them. They know they can call any hour of the day or night. We had a couple of guys who we thought may have contracted it. Our team was quarantined for about 24 hours; they didn’t want them coming into Leavey or into training to possibly infect others, and they all needed to get the antibiotic.
Friday, Feb. 5 to Monday, Feb. 8
When we finished on Friday, a lot of satisfaction and exhaustion. We were really stressed out because of Super Bowl planning, which was already an all-hands-on-deck event. I spent a lot of time in line, sending students to the various vaccination stations when a vaccine station would become available. I had time to talk with students, and I never heard a single one of ’em complain, even though they’d all been in line for two to three hours.
Our RAs had distributed flyers from OMC within the residence halls, but we realized that nobody had gone door-to-door in the community, to knock on our students’ houses. We wanted to catch the students early Saturday morning and, say, “Hey! Come do this before you go out Saturday night.” Many of the students, when I walked up to them, were very congenial and said not only had they had a shot—they all were proud of showing me their arms with their bandage on it—but they had pushed their friends to go as well. They had taken this seriously.
One of the houses that I came upon, the students were up on the roof, sunbathing. It struck me that after all the effort we had put in, the students were now safe from the meningitis—but in danger being up on a rooftop, so I had to talk to them about coming off the rooftop.
The Santa Clara Dance Team, who had just performed at the Super Community Celebration, they came over en masse. There must have been 25 of them still in their dance attire, and they just went through it together.
We moved the clinic three times over the next three days, because the different locations were being used for other functions. Sunday everybody slept, and then on Monday we opened it up again in Locatelli Student Activity Center. It was an unbelievable coordinated effort.
Dr. Sara Cody | Health Officer, Santa Clara County:
The short amount of time—less than 48 hours between the confirmation of the outbreak and the start of mass vaccination clinics—set a national record … I am very proud and grateful to think of the talent, dedication, and sheer grit required to make these clinics happen. —as told to CBS News
One of my friends—her sister died from meningitis when we were in high school. So I knew it could kill you. But when I got in there, the doctors were like, “You’re going to be fine.” So I had no real reason to be scared—other than that spinal tap. That was pretty terrible. I was on morphine for that.
By Monday, 4,923 doses of a meningococcal B vaccine had been administered on campus. All three students diagnosed with meningitis had been discharged from the hospital.
If you want to paraphrase something, “It’s about the community, stupid.” It’s about the community and their willingness. They understood the importance; they understood that they could drop things or find time. And there were a couple of people who literally it was their first month working at the University, and we had people who had been working at the University for over 30 years.
Fr. Jeffrey Baerwald:
You have to remain calm during this kind of event and help people, listen to them, be present to them, and not get carried away yourself. But I think the grace of God was there and really thank God that it all ultimately worked out well, that we didn’t lose anybody, and nobody seems to have any long-term side effects. What strikes me is that our University’s cura personalis—about attending to the individual—provided an automatic response of saying, “How can we help you?” That was of incredible value, to see that in action—this tremendous care for individuals. It never was about one individual’s response to this crisis; it was about this great sense of wanting to help, of service to the community, of wanting to contribute in any way. It’s a very strong reminder of what it means to be a community: that we go beyond the language, that we do what we say we’re going to do.
The compassion that people had for one another, and how people were so willing to serve was so refreshing. Our personal need to be there for one another helps to shape our identity. During this time, a lot of people put their curiosity aside, such as wanting to know, “How did it start? Who was the student?” Instead people just focused on “How do we care for the community? How do we make the community whole? How do I serve?” So part of my takeaway from this situation is to not be afraid to call on people to help, because people have a real need to make a positive difference in the world.
After about two weeks we stopped getting notifications of students being evaluated to rule out meningitis. I have to admit—and I told Jeanne Rosenberger this—any time I got a message that she wanted to talk to me, it was like, “Oh, no! I hope she’s not calling to let me know that we have another student with possible meningitis!”
One takeaway is the importance of integrated command structure when dealing with an emergency. Having a group of people that are the policy experts and people that are the logistics and execution experts, working in tandem is critical. That was critical to the success. And the second thing: Never, ever, ever plan a Super Bowl on the same weekend as a meningitis outbreak.
Student Bradley Sheffield went home to Arizona to recover. He returned to campus at the end of March. “You don’t think something like this is going to happen to you,” he told the Mercury News. “It’s a miracle there’s not more damage—and a miracle that I recovered so fast.”
SCU opened up clinics for a second round of MenB vaccinations in early April—since the vaccine requires a second dose.
At the State of the University address on Feb. 17, the SCU Gospel Choir sang “Amazing Grace.” And President Engh concluded by saying, “I cannot name everyone who contributed to these massive undertakings. Many worked behind the scenes, but all of you demonstrated dedication to the University and, in particular, commitment to the welfare of our students. God bless you all for your contributions, and thank you again for your care. I am so very proud of you. You are the ‘amazing grace’ for Santa Clara!”
I took maybe three weeks off rowing. I would go to practice and sit in the launch and ride along. But I wasn’t cleared to row, mostly because of the spinal tap. With rowing, the team is like a family. Everybody wants everybody else to succeed.
“Misha is one of the toughest kids I’ve been around. He is one tough cookie.”
When you’re down for that long, there’s a period of time that it takes for you to get back to where you were. It impacted Misha’s performance a little bit. But I’ll say this: Misha is not big in stature, but he’s big in heart.
At the championships in Sacramento, we had a pretty wicked, fast, freshman eight. We were supposed to win one race, then we had some issues in the sprint and one of our guys caught a crab. We ended up second.
Men’s varsity rowing finished 21st in the country in 2016. Farwell says they have a good shot at breaking the top 20 next year. Practice starts mid-September.
Harold Gutmann is an award-winning writer and editor in the Office of Marketing and Communications. Eryn Olson ’16 and Steven Boyd Saum contributed to this story. We welcome your contributions as well—to add more voices to this oral history. Share them below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.