Yet his widow can’t get any officials to tell her that directly.
“On top of my grief, and my anger over the way it’s all been handled, I’ve had so much trouble finding out anything concrete,” said Joyce Lovelace, 75, a resident of Albany, Ky. “I don’t even know when I’ll have answers, or if I ever will.”
For weeks, she has been pressing authorities to provide an official cause of death for her husband of 55 years, a longtime Kentucky circuit court judge who got spinal injections last summer to relieve back pain after an auto accident. His death certificate cites the cause as “pending investigation.”
In an outbreak characterized by uncertainty, with thousands of people frightened that any headache, dizziness or sign of fever could mean that they have contracted meningitis, the families of such early victims are in a special category of ambiguity.
Many of these first-to-die were buried before federal officials began to suspect a burgeoning public health crisis in which some 14,000 people might be at risk. Instead, Eddie Lovelace and at least four others were originally thought to have succumbed to a rare type of stroke.
What convinced health officials otherwise wasn’t merely the discovery, after their deaths, that these patients had gotten suspect injections, but the location of their strokes: at the back of the head.
Other patients definitively diagnosed with fungal meningitis after getting potentially contaminated injections suffered strokes in the same region of the brain.
The stroke pattern offered sufficient evidence for investigators at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to count the five deaths as probable fatalities due to the outbreak.
Still, observed William Schaffner, chairman of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, the Nashville hospital where Lovelace died, “While that ‘probable’ classification works superbly for public health circumstances . . . an individual family might have a different view because they might wish to know definitively what their family member died of.”
Unfortunately, he added, “We’re just stuck with that difficulty.”
The widow’s experience of having to piece together the details of her husband’s case also highlights a gap in the ambitious official response to the outbreak. Federal and state officials, in their effort to track and shut down the source of the infection and alert additional patients at risk, were focused on protecting the wider public. They proved less adept at addressing the needs of relatives of victims such as Eddie Lovelace.