The Lyre, Summer 2012 / Living and Loving Life
A close-knit family, a high school cheerleader, a sorority legacy, a cheerful personality to match her bouncing red hair—Amanda Ball Richter, a 1999 initiate of the Sigma chapter at the University of Iowa, was the epitome of the all-American college girl. But overnight, she found herself fighting for her life due to the quickly ravaging effects of a freak illness.
Amanda’s story is not one of sadness, but instead, a story of celebration. A loving, thriving mother, wife, friend, daughter—Amanda is proof that life, wonderfully, can and does go on following tragedy.
As an incoming freshman, Amanda immediately decided to go through recruitment. Following in her older sister’s footsteps, she joined Alpha Chi Omega and jumped right in for all the sorority-life offerings. She lived in the chapter house and ran for the executive board position of vice president finance. She befriended all of the women in her chapter and wore her letters everywhere. Her grades were good, her spirit was bright—the college experience was looking very good for Amanda.
As she approached her junior year, Amanda decided to take advantage of the study abroad opportunity made available to students through the university. Wanting to have a better understanding of her Irish roots, she chose Ireland for her semester-long getaway. Although it was difficult to leave her family and friends behind, on New Year’s Day 2002, she packed her things and made her away across the Atlantic to the Emerald Isle.
Fighting for Her Life
A couple of months had passed since she began her time in Ireland, and it was everything Amanda had imagined it would be. She made many new friends, learned of her own heritage and culture, and was able to travel other European cities and countries. Following one such trip to London, Amanda noticed herself having a simple sore throat and a tired feeling. She attributed both to her recent travels.
Spending the evening with her flatmates, Amanda began feeling nauseated, so she went to bed. The next thing she knew, it was 1 o’clock in the afternoon, and she was in a delirious state. Amanda has no recollection of the weeks that followed, and she is only able to recount through stories and experiences told to her by doctors, family and friends.
Her flatmate, another student in the study abroad program, found Amanda passed out in her room—her legs already suffering from septic shock. She was rushed to the University College Cork Hospital, and her family was notified of her diagnosis, meningococcal septicemia (commonly referred to as meningitis B) with only a five percent chance of surviving through the night. Amanda was immediately placed in a medically induced coma which ultimately lasted for 18 days.
While in the coma, doctors were able to treat the meningococcal septicemia; however, the excessive use of antibiotics wreaked their own havoc. Due to the illness and the necessary treatment, the flesh on Amanda’s legs was eaten away and she experienced failures in almost every organ of her body. Luckily, her brain and heart remained untouched.
When Amanda finally awoke, she found her mother, father and the high school sweetheart who would become her husband at her bedside. Nurses asked many questions in order to analyze Amanda’s mental state, and fortunately, she had no discernible difficulties. She was, however, unaware of her own physical state.
Amanda remembers, “The skin on my hands was black and peeling like a snake…I had massive muscle and tendon loss in my legs. Without bandages, the bone was exposed. I didn’t know what to talk about with people; it was all very surreal.”
Following the coma, she stayed in the hospital for an additional four weeks. Then, she was transferred to the University of Chicago Hospital for five weeks—where she underwent multiple surgeries and skin grafts and suffered from a pulmonary embolism—and finally, to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago for three weeks.
Amazed by her own recovery, Amanda looks back on the doctors who meant so much to her. “The doctors in Ireland saved my life. I hope to go back some day to thank them. Dr. Song [my plastic surgeon at the University of Chicago Hospital] saved my legs. Dr. Song gave me my individuality…I was me again.”
Amanda’s recovery was far from over; she was still wheelchair bound, undergoing rehabilitation, had to wear a purse-like bag containing the items needed to increase blood flow to her legs while removing unwanted fluids, and was met with constant questions for which she never knew how to answer. But with her own willingness and determination, she returned to the University of Iowa in fall 2002 to continue her collegiate career. And in spring 2004, Amanda received her diploma by walking across the graduation stage—albeit with a cane.
A Sisterhood of Support
“While in Ireland, I was the one with the most mail. Every day, I received cards in the mail from sisters. Some I was close to, some I was not. Opening the mail, I could actually see a progression within myself. I could actually open the envelopes myself.”
Not only had Amanda’s sisters sent letters, cards and more during her hospital stay in Ireland, but once home, the women made sure Amanda missed out on nothing of her senior year. “I had over 100 girls supporting me. For senior night, they made sure to push me from stop to stop, so I was able to join in.”
Amanda attributes many of her life- and career-skills to her time with the chapter, and she stays in contact with her sisters to this day.
Her Happy Ending
Today, Amanda is happily married and the mother of one, with another on the way. She serves as a financial planner with World Kitchen and, in her own words, is “living the life I always dreamed of.”
Her scars, walking cane, ankle splints and existing medical needs serve as a reminder of the obstacles she has had to overcome and those she will overcome, but they do not get in her way.
For instances when her scars seem to be getting her down, she tries to stay as positive as she can. “I find a way to make it work,” she says. “Bad things happen sometimes. What matters is how you handle it afterwards. Just being able to live the life I always wanted after being so close to death and with my physical issues, that’s my success.”
Words of Wisdom
At the one-year anniversary of her diagnosis, Amanda celebrated her first “life party.” Celebrating the day that changed her life, 2012 marks her tenth anniversary. With this milestone, she hopes to share with others in order to provide further awareness of the illness and its symptoms.
“Meningitis kills in 24 hours; I was already 20 hours along when I arrived at the hospital. I couldn’t save myself. You have to look out for each other.”
And to all her Alpha Chi Omega sisters, alumna and collegiate alike, who may be dealing with their own grief, she urges, “Lean on people. Reach out. Talk to people to work through your feelings. It is the only way to work through the problem. Stay positive, because life really does go on.”
Amanda Ball Richter resides in the Jefferson Park area of Chicago, Illinois, with her husband, Ryan, and two-year-old daughter, Andrea. They look forward to the arrival of their second child this July. Amanda may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For further information on the causes, symptoms and complications of meningitis, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website at cdc.gov or the National Meningitis Association website at nmaus.org.