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Score One for Thurlow : Capistrano Valley Standout Wins Off-Court Duel With Meningitis

May 02, 1996|WENDY WITHERSPOON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A teenage boy is not supposed to die.

Not a boy with strawberry blond hair and a way of tilting back his head when he smiles.

Not a boy who lives to soar at a volleyball net and watch the ball go crashing down on the other side.

Not a brother. Not a son.

These thoughts ran through the minds of dozens who gathered daily at Children's Hospital in Mission Viejo during the last week of March to help Ryan Thurlow fight for his life.

Thurlow, a junior outside hitter for Capistrano Valley High, was stricken with spinal meningitis. He was in a coma for nearly 24 hours. Doctors, family and friends feared he might die.

Meningitis is an infection of the meninges--matter that envelopes the brain and spinal cord. A spinal tap revealed that Thurlow's meningitis was caused by a bacteria rather than a virus. The first 24 hours after the onset of bacterial meningitis are critical--most patients will die if they do not receive antibiotics.

But because his mother, Marcia, got him to the hospital quickly and because of an immune system his doctor called "remarkable," Thurlow fended off the disease.

Thurlow returned to the court on April 16--less than three weeks after he had emerged from the coma. Playing in the last five South Coast League matches, he helped his team clinch the title with a 9-0 league record, 14-1 overall.

"I don't think about [the illness] at all. I'm just going on like it never happened," Thurlow said. "If I look back, it's depressing. I think, 'I could have died.' So I never think about it."

Thurlow started feeling ill during a history class March 26, and by that afternoon his left leg was stiff, he was weak, and he could barely walk. He told Coach Darren Utterback that he couldn't play in a match that night, and by the middle of the first game, he asked his mother to take him home.

Thurlow showered and went to bed but vomited throughout the night. His older brother, Brett, stopped by to deliver Thurlow's first car, but he was so sick he barely noticed it in the driveway.

Marcia, an elementary school teacher, checked her son about 5:30 a.m. and gave him a glass of water. She had arranged for a substitute teacher but stopped at the school later that morning to prepare some lesson plans. Thoughts of Ryan kept gnawing at her.

"I thought, 'There's something wrong, he's too sick.' Then I would work for 10 minutes and then I would think again, 'There's something wrong, he's too sick,' " she said.

At 7:15 a.m. she headed home, where she found Ryan still vomiting. She took him to the hospital. In the emergency room, he began to slip into a coma.

"If he showed up to the emergency room 12 hours later, the outcome would have been different," said Dr. Sana Al-Jundi, the pediatric intensive care specialist on duty at the time.

One good sign for Thurlow was that he had not yet gone into shock, when the heart rate drops and the mortality rate increases, the doctor said. Still, his symptoms were severe.

"We couldn't just reassure the mother that he was going to be OK," Al-Jundi said.

In 1968, Marcia and Toby Thurlow, Ryan's father, lost their first daughter, 14-month-old Stacy, to encephalitis, though they are reluctant to talk about it in the wake of Ryan's illness. Ryan, 17, is the youngest of four children.

Utterback learned of Thurlow's condition from the player's father, Toby, and gathered team members to tell them what had happened. He cautioned them to see their doctors because the disease is highly contagious--it can strike anyone and fatigue can make one especially susceptible to it.

"I just started praying," said Mike Tully, a senior on the team and one of Thurlow's best friends. "I didn't know what more I could do. I did a little bit of crying and praying and a lot of thinking. Ryan is such a nice guy, a good guy, and I couldn't believe that something like this could ever happen to him."

Utterback went to the hospital shortly after the team meeting and stayed there for the next 12 hours.

"I just thought it would be best to be there and to not say a whole lot," he said. "There wasn't anything you could do. It was all up to time at that point."

At about 3:30 a.m. on March 28, as Marcia slept in a chair next to Ryan's bed, a nurse shook her awake.

Thurlow was asking what time it was as he awoke from the coma.

"It was pretty emotional just watching the family. When he woke up, it was like, 'Yeah!' " Al-Jundi said. "He has a tough body that has a good immune system. He fought it really well."

Even after Thurlow woke up, there was still danger. He suffered severe headaches for several days, and doctors monitored him to make sure that fluid had not gathered around his brain.

Thurlow doesn't remember much of the days after the coma. He was disoriented and doesn't remember his mother putting her face six inches from his nearly every hour, explaining to him where he was.

"I think that the key to this whole thing was the incredible response and love [of] his teammates and his schoolmates and the people from the churches," said Toby, the dean of students at Mission Viejo High.

On April 2, six days after he arrived in the emergency room, Thurlow went home. Two days later, he drove the new car for the first time, taking a spin by practice to surprise his teammates.

Thurlow's friends were glad to see him back. They missed the crazy handshakes he invents and the bizarre phrases he makes up for their amusement.

"It's almost like he has his own lingo," said teammate Beau Rawi.

Thurlow, expected to be a top recruit next year, was glad to be back.

"Me fighting the disease is like me on the court--very competitive," he said. "I can't lose out there."

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