A parent's worst nightmare became a reality May 3, 2001, for George and Jimalee Thomas of Salem when their 21-year-old son died from a deadly bacteria as a result of meningococcal -- a bacterial form of meningitis.
On the morning of his death, their son, Mark, woke up feeling sick, but he thought he just had the flu. Mrs. Thomas spoke to Mark at 7 a.m. and he told her he was weak but thought he was sick due to allergies. His parents called to check on him at 6 p.m. that night but there was no answer. Two hours later he called his parents and told them he was extremely sick.
A brother-in-law traveled to Mark's home to check on him and discovered his weakened condition. He had to be carried down the stairs by his brother-in-law because he was so weak and transported to the hospital. When he arrived at the hospital he was delirious, he could barely speak and his kidneys had already shut down.
In route to the hospital the Thomases received a phone call from their daughter who thought Mark would survive, but he died before they were able to reach the hospital. When they arrived in Springdale they were told their son had died. Medical personnel tried to discourage them from viewing their son's body but they insisted.
Mrs. Thomas said before he died doctors told her Mark coded and medical personnel tried to revive him but they were not able to save him.
Health regulations mandated that their son be buried in a closed casket which was red tagged because of how contagious and deadly the bacteria can be.
The Thomases agreed the hardest thing was the drive from Salem to Springdale; the second hardest thing was to clean out his apartment after his death.
One of the first symptoms of this bacteria is a blue rash on the body, Thomas said. If caught in time the victim can be saved but chances are the patient will be left with some sort of defect or deformity -- loss of vision, loss of limbs, or loss of hearing. He may even be left comatose.
Once diagnosed with this illness the patient can be dead within two hours. "This is very serious, very contagious," Mrs. Thomas said. The bacteria is spread through the upper respiratory system from facial fluids, coughing and sneezing, Thomas said.
Thomas and his wife want to make the public aware their son died needlessly. A vaccine exists for this bacteria, but they were not aware of that fact. The cost of the vaccination is between $75 to $125. The Thomases said the price may sound expensive but it's not when compared to grief and the cost of a funeral.
"Our son was healthy as a horse. We didn't expect him to die," Mrs. Thomas said. Both Thomases agreed it was better that the Lord took their son than to have left him as a vegetable. Mark would have been in bad shape had he lived -- he would have been placed on dialysis forever, Mrs. Thomas said.
"None of us are safe really," Mrs. Thomas said.
She said men ages 18-24 and college students are more prone to the bacteria because their health can be run down. Often students living in dormitories are in closed environments with stale air. However, the bacteria can attack those outside of that age group; she said a 12-year-old boy in Missouri died from meningitis in March.
Because of the severity of this bacteria, colleges are recommending students get the vaccination.
Thomas said to become infected with meningococcal a person must be in contact with an infected person by drinking, kissing or sneezing. He said the bacteria eat the blood platelets and give off a toxic chemical which eats holes in the walls of the blood vessels causing internal bleeding. Once the bacteria enter the bloodstream the infected person's life is in danger, he explained.
When the Thomases' younger son, Steven, became a student at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville last fall, they made sure he received the vaccine.
Mrs. Thomas said a stronger emphasis needs to be placed on the vaccine so families will not be faced with the death of a child.
The couple wants to make the public aware this bacteria can kill someone who appears healthy. Thomas said Mark was an all-around athlete. He was in excellent shape and could bench press 250 pounds at 6 feet 2 inches and 2.7-percent body fat.
Thomas said symptoms of meningococcal meningitis can resemble the flu; high fever, headache, nausea, vomiting, exhaustion and confusion.
In honor of their son, Fulton County officials have renamed the 53rd annual 5K Run the Bank of Salem Mark Thomas Memorial Apple Pie 5K Run. Thomas explained Mark had been a participant in the race since kindergarten.