A popular Loudoun County high school student and softball player who died mysteriously this week had bacterial meningitis, the school system’s first confirmed case in two years.
Madison Small, 18, was a senior on the Broad Run High School softball team and in perfect health before Monday, when she came down with what friends described as headaches. After going to the hospital, her organs began shutting down, friends said, and Small died Tuesday.
Nancy Bull, an administrator in the northern district of the Virginia medical examiner’s office, said Small died of neisseria sepsis, a blood infection caused by the same bacteria that causes meningitis, a swelling of the tissue lining the brain and spinal cord.
Common symptoms include fever, headache, stiff neck, nausea and vomiting. Bacterial meningitis can be treated with antibiotics, but “even with antibiotic treatment, people die in about one to two out of 10 cases,” said Ian Branam, a spokesman with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
David Goodfriend, director of the Loudoun County Health Department, said there is only one confirmed case of bacterial meningitis in the Virginia suburb. Goodfriend said there are vaccinations that prevent meningitis but they are generally required only for students headed to college, where cases can spread in a communal setting.
The bacteria is spread through direct contact with body fluids, including saliva and mucus from coughs or sneezes, kissing or sharing eating utensils, drinks, or lip balm and lipstick. Branam said the disease is relatively uncommon in the United States, with only 550 cases reported in 2013.
“Meningococcal disease is not as contagious as viruses that cause the common cold or the flu,” Branam said. “The best way to protect yourself against meningococcal disease is to get vaccinated.”
Goodfriend said the Health Department had identified a limited number of people who had close contact with Small in recent days and will be observed for signs of meningitis. He said there is no danger to the larger community.
Loudoun schools spokesman Wayde Byard said students are not required to be vaccinated for meningitis to enroll, and he noted that it is not common for school-age children to receive the inoculation. Byard said the last case in Loudoun was in January 2013.
As a precaution, locker rooms at Broad Run have been cleaned twice since Small fell ill, Byard said.
“At this point, there’s no indication of any kind of outbreak,” Byard said. “It’s a very tragic case . . . but there’s no reason to panic.”
Byard said Small’s softball team last practiced March 27, before the county school system’s spring break, which started March 30. Byard said Small did not attend softball practice Monday, April 6, making it unlikely that Small had contact with students on school grounds during the meningitis incubation period, which can span 10 days.
Small was bound for Virginia Tech in the fall, and several speakers at a hastily planned memorial Tuesday night noted the enthusiasm with which she looked ahead to her college days. In less than 24 hours, promise and potential yielded to remembrance and eulogy.
At the conclusion of Tuesday’s vigil, Small’s softball teammates released 24 pink balloons into the blackness to honor the No. 24 on her Spartans jersey.
Junior Ellie Jessop, 17, spent three seasons alongside Small, who played second base on Broad Run’s varsity team, and she found the senior captain’s support to be unconditional.
“It’s hard to find a leader in anything you do, but Madison was a true leader,” Jessop said. “She was there to improve her own level, but more importantly, she was there to improve her teammates. When you hit a home run — she was there for you. When you struck out — she was there for you.”
After injuries hampered her the past two seasons — setbacks that limited Small’s contributions to timely knocks as the team’s designated hitter — there was a hunch in Ashburn that this was Small’s year to “set records and lead a team that was going to be challenging for some spots,” Broad Run Coach Ed Steele said. “And [Tuesday], that all went away.”
On Friday, the Broad Run softball team tried to return to some semblance of normalcy during a practice inside the school’s auxiliary gym, where players took turns batting tattered soccer balls into a padded wall. Outside, Steele hit balls for the outfielders and tried to keep the mood light even as the team mourns the loss of their star player.
He cracked jokes, telling one out-of-position player to move “out of Fairfax County and come back to Loudoun.” When another player sent an errant throw close to Steele’s head, he warned that he wasn’t mad — “I’ll get even.”
“We’re making it as normal as possible. We’re just keeping our eyes open in case someone is having trouble focusing or whatever,” Steele said. “Once the kids get on the field, everything else is blotted out for that short period of time. When they go home, it’ll return, but while they’re here — that’s the goal.”
Broad Run freshman Grace Lopez, 15, wore a pink bracelet on her right hand bearing Small’s initials Friday. About 2 p.m., the entire student body assembled for a group photo that was sent to the Small family, Byard said. Many students wore pink to honor their classmate.
“I think it’s amazing how we all came together to support one person,” Lopez said. “How that one person can have an effect on someone.”
The school has canceled all athletic events for Monday, the day of Small’s funeral.
Speaking at the vigil Tuesday, Small’s father encouraged those gathered to make the most of every day.
“Life can be short. We found that out today,” said Tim Small. “Make the most of it. Love each other. Don’t get bogged down in the little nitpicky crap. Put that aside. Life’s too short.”