When Patti Wukovits’ 17-year-old daughter Kimberly Coffey, passed away suddenly from bacterial meningitis in June 2012, life as she knew it would never be the same. Kim’s story was shared in the November 2014 issue of the Massapequa Observer titled, “A Daughter’s Memory, A Mother’s Mission.” Now, three years after her daughter’s passing, Wukovits has been dedicating her life to spreading the word about the importance of being vaccinated for meningococcal disease. Her biggest victory so far? A recent passing of a bill being signed into law that requires all teens in seventh and 12th grade to be vaccinated for meningitis.
“It blindsided me when they told me Kim had meningitis. She was vaccinated, but contracted serogroup B meningococcal disease, which did not, at the time, have a vaccine to protect her,” said Wukovits, RN and executive director of the Kimberly Coffey Foundation. “I am overjoyed that Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation in October that mandates the meningitis vaccine for seventh and 12th graders in New York State.”
But the road to getting the bill passed was not an easy one. For about a year and a half, Wukovits spent her time traveling by car and train to Albany as a parent, to ask and urge the Senate and assembly to pass the bill in both houses.
“I got a call at 11:45 p.m. on Oct. 26 that the bill was passed and I was completely overjoyed. I had a feeling that it would get passed because it just makes sense,” said Wukovits. “You put your child in a seat belt every time you put them in a car, so it’s our job as parents to protect our children.”
The bill got passed in both houses and Senator Kemp Hannon was a bill sponsor.
“The pivotal moment for the bill was the conversation he [Hannon] had with me when I told him Kim’s story,” said Wukovits, who also thanked Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, who was the other bill sponsor. “Being a nurse (RN) has helped me because I believe I am more credible in conveying the information in addition to being a mother. I didn’t know that there was another strain of meningitis that Kim hadn’t been vaccinated for.”
Although Cuomo signed the bill into law on Oct. 26, it will not be effective until Sept. 1, 2016, due to the extensive amount of paperwork from the schools to establish everything. If a parent refuses to vaccinate their child for serogroups A, C, W and Y, their child will not be allowed to attend school.
“It’s bittersweet because the law does not require a vaccination for serogroup B (available in 2014), which is the fifth strain that Kim passed away from, it only requires vaccination for the other four strains,” said Wukovits. “The CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention), has not yet made serogroup B a routinely recommended vaccine, but it is available to get if you want.”
While Wukovits is hopeful that it will happen in the future—the bill is written so that when serogroup B is mandatory, it can slide right into the existing law—she has spent her time urging all parents to ask their pediatricians to get it for their children.
“Serogroup B is a new vaccine, and it’s not out there in the forefront; it accounts for 30-40 percent of meningitis cases in the U.S.,” said Wukovits of the fairly new vaccine, which was 20 years in the making. “They feel that serogroup B is rare, which I don’t agree with.”
In fact, college campuses have had several recent outbreaks of the strain, allowing the vaccines licensed to move on to an accelerated process, bringing it to the U.S. sooner than anticipated. But what are the symptoms?
According to Wukovits, serogroup B has the same symptoms as the other four strains, including a fever, headache and stiff neck. Unfortunately, it is the behavior of the adolescent age group that put them at a higher risk of contracting and transmitting the disease. In the case of a bloodstream infection, which Kim had, a purplish rash can appear.
“Meningitis can be passed through saliva by kissing someone, sharing a drink or being too close to someone’s face,” said Wukovits, adding that 15 percent of the population carries the bacteria in the back of their nose and throat and do not show symptoms. “The doctors explained to me that Kim had a low resistance at the time she was exposed and she couldn’t fight it off. How I wish serogroup B vaccines had been available to Kim.”
In spreading the word, Wukovits became a member of a stakeholders group, which included the Medical Society of New York State and very well-known societies that were supporting the bill.
“While traveling, I went with a meningitis survivor from Long Island, another mother who lost her child to the disease and a man from New York City, whose partner passed away from meningitis,” said Wukovits. “It’s putting the face to the disease that makes such an impact.”
While there are multiple states that have vaccine requirements, Wukovits hopes that many more will follow along with New York.
“I’m going into schools and speaking to students, telling them about the disease and how to prevent it by vaccination. Many people don’t know to ask for two different vaccinations so they will be covered for all five serogroups,” said Wukovits, adding that the parents are the hardest group for her to reach. “There are some parents who don’t know about it or don’t want their kids vaccinated because they heard it from a celebrity who is anti-vaccination. Unfortunately, their statements carry a lot of weight.”
In 2016, Wukovits will be speaking at nursing colleges, including Molloy, where Kim was planning to attend for nursing.
“She would be so thrilled at what I am doing now, and I know that she would be doing the exact same thing if this happened to one of her friends,” said Wukovits. “Her story needs to be told so people will understand the severity of the disease. I feel like I’m channeling my grief in her memory, because anything I do is in Kim’s memory.”
Wukovits is eternally grateful that because of her work, people thank her and say that they have had their children vaccinated because of her daughter’s story. She established The Kimberly Coffey Foundation in memory of her daughter, with the mission to educate the public and healthcare professionals about bacterial meningitis (meningococcal disease) including the symptoms of the disease and the importance of prevention through vaccination.
“Don’t have the false sense of security that I had that my daughter was protected,” said Wukovits. “Kim didn’t have the opportunity but now other kids do and are getting vaccinated in her honor.”
For more information, visit www.kimberlycoffeyfoundation.org, the Facebook or contact Patti Wukovits at email@example.com. To register for the foundation’s first annual fundraiser on Nov 28., in East Islip, visit www.eventbrite.com/e/music-for-meningitis-awareness-tickets-19197070956.