Family: Meningitis victim grew increasingly worried about outbreak


Published: Monday, October 22, 2012 at 12:24 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, October 22, 2012 at 5:55 p.m.

OCALA - Walter Ward had worried about his epidural shot since reading local news accounts that some vials of the medicine from Massachusetts were contaminated. Then people began dying and he worried even more.

The 78-year-old Ocala man had a spine operation a year ago. In August, he received an epidural shot to relieve his chronic back pain. Florida Department of Health officials say he was unknowingly injected with a suspect batch of a steroid, methylprednisolone acetate, at the Marion Pain Management Center.

He didn't show any symptoms of fungal meningitis until Oct. 15, when he collapsed at home. He died the next day at Ocala Regional Medical Center.

"He was afraid since the first (newspaper) article appeared. We told him not to worry … that he didn't have any symptoms," recalled his wife, Louise, during an interview Monday. "We tried to ease his worrying … But I was a little worried … but I didn't let him know."

As of Monday night, the outbreak had left nearly 300 people confirmed with fungal meningitis in 16 states and 23 people dead in seven of those states.

On Monday, the Florida Department of Health announced the state's 18th confirmed case of fungal meningitis. It was a 55-year-old man who received treatment at Pain Consultants of West Florida in Escambia County.

Thirteen of the 18 confirmed Florida cases were in Marion County, as are all three of the state's deaths.

About three weeks ago the Wards got a letter they never wanted to see. It was from the Marion County Health Department notifying Walter Ward that the steroid shot he received was from one of three recalled contaminated lots manufactured and distributed by the New England Compounding Center.

Ward worried more, his wife recalled.

One week later Ward saw his family doctor. It was a regular visit and not linked to the fungal meningitis outbreak.

Louise Ward said he went to the doctor alone but told her he would discuss with his doctor his concerns over getting contaminated steroid medicine. He still had none of the symptoms associated with the disease. As far as his wife knows, he never had a spinal tap to examine the fluid in his spine and see if there was anything out of the ordinary.

His son, Ken, said his father's only complaints were typical of his age: aches and pains in his hands and feet.

"We thought he died of …old age," Ken Ward said Monday.

At 9 p.m. on Oct. 15, Ward had a headache that got worse fast.

"Maybe five minutes later he said, ‘I'm in trouble' and grabbed the back of his head," Louise Ward recalled.

His next words were for his wife to get their son, who lived next door in their duplex. He told his mother to call 911 and rushed over.

"When I got back to him he was unable to talk coherently. He was trying to talk but you couldn't understand him. … Five or 10 minutes later he was unconscious," Louise Ward said.

Then he stopped breathing.

Paramedics worked to revive him and got him breathing again, she said. Seven and a half hours later, at 4:25 a.m., the former dairy farmer from New York died at Ocala Regional.

Even though her husband received the contaminated steroid injection in August, Louise Ward originally thought her husband had died of a stroke unrelated to the outbreak. She said her husband had suffered from high blood pressure but took medicine that kept it well under control. It wasn't until the Star-Banner telephoned that Ward realized the Florida Department of Heath had counted her husband as its third fungal meningitis fatality.

Ward's funeral was Sunday.

Ward had been an active man. After 30 years of dairy work in New York he moved to Florida, where he worked at Hiers Funeral Home (1973-76), drove a Marion County school bus (1978-84),and worked at Hudson Foods, Kash n' Karry and Goodings food stores (1986-90), according to his obituary.

Ward also drove for Marion County Senior Services from 1990-99.

Three Marion County clinics administered up to an estimated 500 shots of the tainted medicine, though some patients likely received more than one shot.

It is estimated that as many as 17,000 vials of the suspect steroid were shipped to 76 clinics in 23 states and injected into as many as 14,000 patients.

In Florida eight medical facilities received the tainted steroid. Of the eight, six injected doses into 1,038 patients. All patients have been notified of the health risks.

All of NECC's products — not just the tainted pain medicine — are now being recalled.

Symptoms of fungal meningitis related to NECC's contaminated epidural steroid injections include fever, headache, stiff neck, nausea and vomiting, sensitivity to light and altered mental status. The disease is not contagious.

Contact Fred Hiers at 867-4157 or fred.hiers@starbanner.com.

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