‘It’s unimaginable’: Ont. family mourning death of student at Dalhousie says they didn’t know of meningitis case

Speaking from his home in Kemptville, Ont., Mike Gaynor says his family is in turmoil, after his 18-year-old daughter, Maria, died of meningitis B last week.

“So awful, it’s the unimaginable. It’s the unfathomable,” he says.

He describes his daughter as “the most creative, sweet soul that we’ve ever known,” who was enjoying her first semester of studies in kinesiology at Dalhousie University.

Her obituary describes her as “a free spirit” with a passion for rock climbing and jogging in Point Pleasant Park.

So full of life, it’s hard for Gaynor to comprehend that Maria will now never finish her degree.

He says his daughter was in her on-campus residence studying for exams when she started to feel unwell on Sunday, Dec. 11. The next day, she told her parents she had a headache, had vomited, and was going to rest, thinking she had influenza. Her parents didn’t hear from her that night or the next day.

Gaynor says neither Maria — nor they — had any idea a suspected case of meningitis on the third floor of Shirreff Hall was already being investigated by Nova Scotia Public Health — a case that had hospitalized another student. Maria lived on the first floor.

Gaynor says Maria died in her dorm room, and he only learned of the first case of meningitis in residence from the medical examiner.

He says students at Shirreff Hall, who share bathrooms and often eat in a common cafeteria, should have been notified immediately that a possible case of meningitis was being investigated.

“If a text or an email could have been sent, if a note could have been slipped under the door, all these kids are holed up in their rooms studying for exams,” he says. “Somebody knew, we didn’t know, Maria didn’t know, that there was [that] case.”

He believes if they had known, the family would have realized Maria’s symptoms were potentially more serious.

A memo from Dalhousie University’s director of residence life and assistant vice-provost of student affairs to student residences dated Monday, Dec. 12, did not mention meningitis.

“Over the weekend, public health notified the university that one case of an infectious disease was identified within our residence community,” it said.

It stated, “Only those contacted by public health are required to take action,” and that the medical diagnosis of the “individuals affected will not be provided,” due to privacy.

Dalhousie University referred CTV’s questions about the memo to Nova Scotia Public Health — which wouldn’t provide an interview.

Instead, N.S. Health senior communications advisor Krista Keough provided a written statement, reading in part:

“Our heartfelt thoughts are with the family and friends of those who have been affected by this situation … it is natural to search for reasons why events turned out the way they did and to advocate for any changes to prevent similar tragedies.”

“Our initial focus was on identifying the immediate contacts from the first case — this does take time and is the most crucial group of people to identify and reach directly.

Certain steps, like providing early advice and intervention to high-risk contacts, can be taken based on initial results. Other steps, like sharing specific diagnoses or offering vaccines, need to wait for more definitive results.”

Friday, regional medical officer of health Dr. Cristin Muecke told CTV News the lab results verifying the meningitis B strain in the Shirreff Hall cases had only come in that day.

But Gaynor believes students should have been warned of the potentially fatal disease much earlier.

“If anything could have been communicated with that word, meningitis, suspected, possible, confirmed, I don’t care, but if that word had been mentioned, we don’t know, but maybe things could have turned out differently, just maybe.”

“And that’s really hard,” he says.

The family is calling on public health to be more transparent when suspected cases of meningitis occur.

“I know Maria wouldn’t want any of her close friends at Dal or any of her family, friends at other schools, or any student … their family to have to live through this,” says Gaynor.

“So with her in our hearts, we’re thinking of that.”

Maria Gaynor’s funeral service is in Kemptville, Ont., this Thursday. Gaynor says anyone wishing to donate in her memory can direct it to the IWK Bfor Kai Trust, which raises awareness about meningitis B and vaccination.

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