A mother looks forward to every special moment in her daughter’s life; the first day of school, a sweet sixteen, prom, graduation, going off to college, her first job, her wedding day and a first grandchild. It is a shared bond like no other. Patti Wukovits of Massapequa was a loving mother to her 17-year-old daughter, Kimberly. Heartbreakingly, Wukovits would never have the chance at some of those shared moments, as her time with Kimberly was cut short. In June 2012, Kimberly passed away one week before her senior prom and graduation from East Islip High School from Meningococcal disease (meningococcemia), also known as bacterial meningitis. She was buried in her prom dress.
“Kim’s life was bright beyond belief. She brightened the lives of people around her every single day,” said Wukovits of her beloved daughter. “She was hysterically funny, incredibly smart, silly beyond description, yet so mature for her age and a shining beacon of love and life.”
Kimberly, like most girls her age, was a healthy, young senior in high school. She was confident, beautiful and kind, and had a laugh that was contagious to all around her. Kimberly was registered to begin her studies at Molloy College in September 2012. It was her dream to become a pediatric nurse.
“One day after school, Kim texted me at work saying she was feeling achy and had a temperature of 101,” said Wukovits when her daughter started feeling ill. “After I got home, I checked her and called the pediatrician who asked that I bring her to the office the next morning because it sounded like the flu.”
Kimberly had already been vaccinated for meningitis, specifically against serogroups A, C, W and Y, which health officials recommend preteens and teens receive at the age of 11 to12 with a booster dose at 16, as they are at greater risk for the disease. When Kimberly awoke the next morning, her symptoms got worse.
“In the morning, Kim said she felt like her ankles were bleeding,” said Wukovits who thought this was odd. “I pulled back the sheets and saw the beginning of a purplish looking rash on one of her ankles—tiny purple dots. I’m an oncology nurse and my first thought when I saw this was that she had a blood cancer.”
Within three hours, Kimberly was in the ICU fighting for her life, as her organs began to fail one by one. She was in septic shock and went into cardiac arrest, but was resuscitated.
“Kim would have had to have both arms and legs amputated if she survived, and even though she was diagnosed immediately with meningococcal disease and treated in the emergency room, nine days later she was declared brain dead and we removed her from life support,” said Wukovits, adding that the bacteria was in Kimberly’s bloodstream.
Tragically, Kimberly contracted serogroup B disease, the only vaccine not available in the U.S. at the time. She was vaccinated against all other forms of meningitis.
“My son, Chris, had to get special permission from the Army to leave basic training to come home to say goodbye to his little sister,” said Wukovits, who was planning her wedding to now husband John, the upcoming September. Kimberly was going to be her maid of honor.
“Just two days before Kim showed any symptoms, she had chosen my wedding dress for me,” said Wukovits. “She was so thrilled and was so looking forward to our wedding day and our future together as we made plans to move to Massapequa Park after her high school graduation.”
In June 2012, Wukovits buried her beautiful daughter with the gorgeous smile and bright eyes.
“Kimberly would tell her friends ‘Life is too short. Get over it, and move on,’” said Wukovits of her daughter’s spirit. It was then that Wukovits made it her life’s mission to educate families about this potentially deadly bacterial infection, and the importance of preventing it.
On Oct. 29, 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first vaccine for serogroup B. Wukovits is hopeful that this vaccine—and another serogroup B vaccine going through FDA approval—will be recommended broadly.
“The symptoms are high fever, severe headache, joint and muscle pain, sensitivity to bright lights, vomiting and a purplish rash,” said Wukovits who also cautioned that a person does not have to have all of these symptoms and that the disease moves quickly and is often mistaken for flu or other viral illnesses. “It can kill or disable a healthy person within hours, so prevention and knowledge of the symptoms is critical. I really hope that parents and teens will talk to their healthcare providers about the new vaccine.”
Wukovits doesn’t want any parent to go through what she went through, and is hopeful that the new vaccine will help prevent against the disease. In addition to being a registered nurse, Wukovits is one of the National Meningitis Association’s Moms on Meningitis (M.O.M.s), and also serves on the board of Nurses Who Vaccinate. She and her husband have established “The Kimberly Coffey Foundation” in honor of Kimberly’s memory to raise awareness of meningococcal disease.
“2015 will be the third year that we will be offering ‘The Kimberly A. Coffey Memorial Nursing Scholarship’ at East Islip High School for students interested in a nursing career,” said Wukovits, who added that one of her requirements for the applicants is that they must provide proof of meningococcal vaccination and the booster if they are due for it. “The high school dedicates one week to Kimberly’s memory by hosting Meningitis Awareness Week. Last year I spoke with every junior and senior in their health classes; they weren’t even aware of the consequences of this disease or its symptoms. That is exactly why I’m doing what I’m doing to raise awareness.”
Wukovits also went to Albany and met with high level officials in the Department of Health and the Governor’s Executive Chamber. The purpose of the meeting was to further advance the New York State Meningococcal Vaccine Bill, which would require all sixth and eleventh graders to be vaccinated for meningococcal disease.
“Contrary to what many people assume, New York State does not require meningococcal vaccination at any age or prior to entering college,” said Wukovits. “The passing of this bill would be such a tremendous step in preventing other families from living with the pain of losing a child.”
Wukovits is certain that Kimberly is smiling down upon her family, as they work in her honor to spread awareness.
“I am sure that if this had happened to one of her friends or family, she would be doing exactly what I am doing. I want to be Kim’s voice and continue her legacy,” said Wukovits.
For more information on meningococcal disease, please visit the National Meningitis Association’s website at www.nmaus.org.
Donations in support of The Kimberly Coffey Foundation and the Kimberly A. Coffey Memorial Nursing Scholarship can be addressed to The Kimberly Coffey Foundation, P.O. Box 344, Massapequa Park, NY 11762.