Skip to content

by Donny Zee

It all started on a Monday morning in February 2003. I felt the start of a cold but still went to work and struggled through it. When I got home, I took some aspirin, cold pills, and ran a very hot bath to try to sweat it out. Tuesday was similar. On Wednesday, I came home with a bottle of vodka and some orange juice. I’m not a hard liquor guy–I prefer a cold beer. But I drank ¾’s of the bottle and didn’t have a hangover.

On Thursday, I did half a day of work and then went home sick. Friday, I left early to go to the doctor, and my boss was angry. The doctor looked at me, listened to my problems, and told me I needed to be in the hospital and wanted to know if someone could drive me. So I called a lady friend, and the doctor gave me my CAT scan in a very large envelope.

I managed to stay conscious until I got in my friend’s truck, right around 4:30. The last thing I remember is taking a right turn to get onto the street.

I woke up in the ICU

A nurse saw me wake up and asked if I knew where I was. I said at the hospital and glanced at the clock. “Let me guess, it’s Sunday morning.” 

“No, it’s Saturday.” 

I wasn’t surprised to be in the hospital, but I don’t remember being pulled out of the van, being undressed, and getting a spinal tap. I’m guessing I was a rag doll until I woke up. There was a Led Zeppelin song stuck in my head from the last few days, one that Cadillac had been using for their TV commercials. I came to hate that song (though now I can stand it).

I would spend two days in the ICU and 3 more in the hospital before I was released. A cousin on my mom’s side of the family, Kerry, researched my infection. It was bacterial meningitis caused by streptococcus pneumoniae. He told me that 1 in 5 die from it, and another 1 in 5 have something in their body that doesn’t work like it used to.

In my case, it was my hearing. I couldn’t hear people who were standing behind me or if they turned their heads while talking to me. It was like I needed to see people’s lips move. So I would tell people I had issues hearing and that they needed to talk to me directly. During COVID, with people wearing masks, I had issues hearing too, but that might also be the impact of 48 years working in a factory.

I gradually found ways to cope with the hearing loss and largely overcame it, though that took a number of years. Still I am very fortunate as some people suffer permanent health issues.

I survived pneumococcal meningitis

The last day I was in the hospital, they inserted a tube into my left arm long enough to reach my heart. At home, a nurse came to inject me with heparin (a blood thinner) and some medicine. I think she did about five visits, and I administered the meds on the last 2-3 visits. Then, I was on my own for the next four weeks. At the end, they called me in to pull out the tube. They didn’t want the leftover medication back, so I donated it to a nonprofit.

An old business card I found from the doctor who treated me.

After five weeks out of work, I went back without a problem. My coworkers thought I had a heart attack or a stroke. Of course, I never told them about the meningitis, and only one guy ever asked. Hearing was the only thing I remember having an issue with. My boss walked up behind me, on my left. And I was startled when I found he was there and his lips were moving. He’d been talking to me, and I heard nothing.

I told my bosses they needed to stand in front of me to talk to me. They tried to fight it. I could hear mumbling, some noise, something that would alert me that noises were being made near me. I ignored the noise, and in time, they stood in front of me and got my attention. They were being jerks, so I was one too. 

I remember going to a bar with another lady friend, Susan. There was a band, the music was loud, and my hearing was a problem. Susan had to talk directly into my ear, though sometimes I could read her lips. I also had a flip phone, which I couldn’t hear anymore. So I bought an attachment with a larger speaker, which helped some.

I told my regular doctor about the hearing loss. I took a company hearing test and one at another location on his recommendation. I don’t remember the results. Gradually, the issue kind of faded away, and I dealt with it as best I could. I never raised the issue with the doctor again. I had to keep living my life on my terms. 

I’d say I don’t really have leftover effects from the meningitis today, not like those who really suffer or are permanently scarred. I still prefer to see lips, but it doesn’t stop me from talking to people. I can have long-winded conversations about anything. I don’t think of that as a disability. I think I’d be doing the same thing whether or not I had meningitis.

I don’t want special treatment either. Some people want attention because something happened to them. Not me. I had some issues that took years to overcome, but I did it, and I won’t use that as a crutch. 

I never thought it would happen to me

Before all this happened, I saw meningitis as a disease for people under 25. My own case started like a cold or a flu, and those were just things that happened normally. 

I did have a classmate from kindergarten who got meningitis and died at 19. It made the headlines on the front page of Milwaukee newspapers. I remember another local story where some guy in his 30s or 40s got it. I assume he lived, as there were no follow-up stories or something on the radio. Meningitis is the kind of disease that makes news in my city, or at least it did when we had real newspapers.

It’s not a disease I thought I would ever get, especially at the age of 51. My immediate family all died from cancer. I never smoked, but both my mom and dad did in the house and the car. Before they banned smoking in bars, I inhaled a lot. And having worked in a factory, inhaling smoke from welding, I suppose I still could get cancer. But I never thought I would get meningitis.

When the vaccine for pneumococcal disease came out, I was happy. I would encourage the youth to get one, and if asked about it, I’d tell parents to get their kids vaxxed.

Donny Zee is a retired factory worker and meningitis survivor. His story, like all others on this blog, was a voluntary submission. If you want to help make a difference, submit your own post by emailing us through our contact form. We depend on real people like you sharing experience to protect others from misinformation.

Back To Top