The physician there, Dr. David Hernandez, evaluated her and immediately sent her to the emergency department at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital.
It was Halloween, in the late afternoon, when Melissa’s parents, Scott and Sandy Shew, got the call that Melissa was headed to the hospital. Sandy quickly threw clothes in a bag and began the three-hour drive. She wanted to be there just in case Melissa had to stay in the hospital overnight. Scott planned to pick up Melissa’s younger brother, Matthew, from school and wait for an update. They still didn’t know exactly what was happening in Santa Barbara.
Dr. Jeffrey Fried was in the medical intensive care unit at SBCH when Melissa arrived. Melissa’s blood pressure had plummeted, and her doctors suspected toxic shock syndrome — a rare, life-threatening illness caused by bacterial infection. Tests quickly confirmed the diagnosis.
Dr. Fried called her family with the message: “Melissa is very sick. Everybody needs to get here now.”
Scott and Matthew left immediately, following just an hour behind Sandy.
Melissa was still awake when Sandy walked into her room around 8:00 that night. “I could tell by looking at her that she was really sick, but I still had no idea how bad it was,” says Sandy. “If she’d been home ... if I’d seen her ... I would have made her go to the doctor sooner.”
Melissa was weak but still in good spirits. She looked up and said, “Hi Mom. I have the coolest nurse!”
Melissa was a teenager, in perfect health, and never suspected that she’d be stricken by a potentially fatal illness. But within a few hours her kidneys had begun to fail. By midnight she was intubated. Her body was struggling to circulate blood; her blood pressure dropped. Her toes slowly began turning purple. Doctors worked to get the right mix of medication to help Melissa fight off the toxic bacteria without causing other complications.
Scott recalls many long, tense nights staring at the monitors looking for glimpses of improvements in Melissa’s vitals. “It was tough seeing my daughter hooked up to so many machines, tubes and IVs. As a parent I felt helpless. I prayed a lot and thanked the Lord that she ended up at SBCH with access to the excellent medical staff and technology it offers,” says Scott.
“During those nights watching over her, amidst all the pumps of the ventilator, the beeps and tones of her life support equipment, I was moved by how deeply compassionate and emotionally invested the whole team of nurses was,” he recalls. “We rode through a lot of ups and downs together, and are eternally grateful for the nurses’ dedication to serving on the front line.”
Melissa didn’t get to meet many who helped save her, but she does remember the “cool nurse,” Sami Hepburn, who first cared for her when she arrived. In the short time that Melissa was awake, she developed a bond with Sami. Melissa remembers, “She promised me that she would work hard and do everything she could to make me better.”
After nearly a week, Melissa showed improvement. Doctors removed her ventilator. Melissa finally woke up and, craving nourishment, whispered, “smoothie.”
“It’s the first thing I said to my parents,” she says with a laugh. “But I didn’t realize right away how weak I was. I couldn’t even move my hands or arms.”
Melissa had to rebuild strength to do everyday tasks like feeding herself and getting dressed.
She did get that sought-after strawberry-banana smoothie. And many more smoothies would come — along with her favorite food on the hospital menu, filet mignon. Melissa’s dad worked with her to help her eat again and get stronger. He encouraged her and negotiated with her when she thought she couldn’t do it: “Use your left hand for five bites, then I’ll feed you five bites while you rest.”
Support and encouragement came from the most unexpected places. “We were so thankful for the Westmont community...especially those who visited the hospital and offered support,” says Scott.
It was three long weeks in the hospital before she was able to transfer to Cottage Rehabilitation Hospital. There she spent another three weeks working with physical therapists, gaining the strength to walk again.
Melissa has made significant progress toward a full recovery and continues to work on challenges with her lower legs and feet. She returned to Westmont in the fall, excited to be back amongst her friends, studying calculus and chemistry and the pursuit of alternate energy sources, and shopping at the State Street boutiques. All with a firm stipulation from her mom: “If she feels sick — even a little — she has to Skype me so I can see her,” says Sandy. “She has to look at Mom.”
Melissa agrees, adding, “I know, if anything happens, my mom will be in the car in a minute.”
What is Toxic Shock?
Toxic shock syndrome (TSS) is caused by toxins released from certain bacteria. It can progress rapidly and lead to a failure of multiple body systems.
TSS is a rare condition that can affect anyone — with bacteria entering the bloodstream through a burn or wound — but it most often affects females 13–25 years of age.
To decrease risk of TSS, menstruating women using tampons should change them frequently, avoid wearing them overnight, and use the lowest level of absorbency needed.
TSS can be difficult to recognize, as many of its symptoms are similar to those of influenza or other conditions. Women should seek immediate medical attention if they are suddenly struck with high fever and other TSS symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, sunburn-type rash and low blood pressure during or soon after their menstrual period.