Mary Virginia Scyster and her husband, David, retired to Pinehurst, N.C., not only for the great golf courses but also because of the town’s reputation for excellent medical care.
In the spring of 2002, Scyster, who was 77, twisted her back while playing golf. The pain persisted and she went to a doctor, who injected the area with an anti-inflammatory steroid. When the drug’s effect wore off, she returned and got a second injection.
“Within two weeks, she was in bed with a headache that wouldn’t quit,” recalled her son, David Brannon. “She resisted going to the hospital, and finally my father just put her in the car and took her. She never came home again.”
Unbeknownst to her, between the first and second shots, the pain clinic at Moore Regional Hospital in Pinehurst had turned to a new source for methylprednisolone when its usual supplier, the drug company Pharmacia, temporarily stopped making it. Between May 6 and June 5, the pain clinic bought 557 vials of methylprednisolone from Urgent Care Pharmacy.
About 140 miles to the east, in Jacksonville, Johnston Pain Clinic also turned to Urgent Care, buying 525 vials of methylprednisolone over five months.
“I couldn’t get what I wanted from anybody else,” recalled anesthesiologist Scott Johnston, now 53. It was there that Vivian Conrad, a 71-year-old retired dispatcher for the sheriff’s department with arthritis, got an injection in her back on June 3.
For both women, weeks or months passed before their infections were fully diagnosed.
When Scyster didn’t improve after two weeks of therapy for bacterial meningitis, a second spinal tap was done. It showed microscopic fungus. She was immediately transferred to Duke University Medical Center, where a world authority on fungal meningitis worked. There, Exophiala dermatitidis, a species that sometimes darkens the tile of bathrooms, was identified.
“By the time she got to the hospital she was never out of pain,” recalled Brannon, her son. “She had a lot of visual hallucinations. It was very frightening for her. Sometimes she would realize what was going on and sometimes she wasn’t with us.”
She died on Aug. 25, 2002.
It gets worse
In the meantime, Vivian Conrad, who lived with her husband in the Atlantic Coast community of Emerald Isle, N.C., was baffling physicians.
“One particular weekend, I remember she was having bad headaches and had had them all week long,” recalled Conrad’s daughter, Chiquita Prestwood, a 63-year-old bookkeeper in Lenoir, N.C. “I asked where they were and she told me toward her neck. I said, ‘Mom, that sounds like meningitis. Why don’t you call your doctor?’ ”