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Ryan Hockensmith recalls his battle with meningitis

Ryan Hockensmith (Rich Arden / ESPN Images)

Editor’s note: Ryan Hockensmith, senior editor at ESPN The Magazine, recounts his battle with a rare bacterial infection called meningococcal meningitis, which left him in critical condition and fighting for his life. In the Fall of 1999, the then 21-year-old senior at Penn State University was majoring in journalism and covering the Nittany Lions for the campus newspaper, The Collegian. Hockensmith shared his amazing story with Front Row’s Rob Tobias.

“Please, I don’t care, just cut my feet off!” I yelled at the doctor.

I meant it, too. The foot pain I was feeling on Halloween night, 1999, was enough to make me beg an ER doctor in State College, Pa., to just start hacking away.

The excruciating pain was just a symptom of something much worse: I had contracted bacterial meningitis, a freak, deadly disease that affects about 1 in 100,000 Americans every year. I was that unlucky one.

My mom rushed up to State College, and I’ll never forget the sight of her and my girlfriend, Lori, standing there beside me.

I believed I was going to die. I say “believe,” because explaining what death feels like is as hard as explaining what living feels like. It doesn’t smell or sound like anything: It just is.

A week later, I woke up in Hershey, Pa. I’d been transported by emergency helicopter to Hershey Medical Center. I awakened to a lot of sad, tired faces who’d spent an up-and-down week wondering if I’d make it. I did make it, and I intended to get right back to school, back to life covering Big Ten football for the student newspaper, back to hanging out with Lori, back to playing sports.

“When will I be able to run again?” I asked one doctor. He just stared at me for a long time before he said, “It’s going to be a long, long time, Ryan.”

It hurt him to say that. It hurt me even more to realize what he was actually saying: My life would never be the same.

The good news was, bacterial meningitis hadn’t killed me, as it has killed so many less fortunate people over the years.

The bad news was, my hands and feet were destroyed.

Meningitis works its way in on the body, like frostbite, until it chokes out your heart and lungs the same way it does to your extremities.

I spent a month in the hospital, including a week in rehabilitation where I learned to walk and use my hands all over again.

Over the course of time, reality set in. My hands were going to be OK, albeit with massive scarring. My feet? That was another story.

I finally came home Nov. 19, 1999 just in time for the most meaningful Thanksgiving of my life. I moved in with my parents, who live near Hershey.

Twice a day, we did bandage changes, where I had to replace dressings on my feet. My toes were black, dead and decaying. I could smell them, and that’s when I realized I had been wrong — you can smell death. One time, during a bandage change at my doctor’s office, the nurse ripped off one piece of gauze and exclaimed, “Uh-oh, that’s bone.”

She’d torn the outside of my foot right off, revealing a three-inch piece of bone.

Just before Christmas, I had six toes amputated. Doctors wanted to preserve as much of my feet as possible, but ultimately, I had several more surgeries to cut off toes. By 2004, I had had the ends of both feet removed. My size-12 foot is now a size-5.

After recovering from the first surgery, I returned to Penn State to get my journalism degree in 2001. Lori was with me every hobbled step of the way. As soon as I finished school, we moved to New York and I began an internship at ESPN The Magazine.

I’ve been here ever since. I was hired full-time as a writer/reporter in 2003. These days, I live in West Hartford, Conn. with the love of my life, my wife, Lori, and two daughters, Elizabeth and Katherine. I am now a senior editor at The Magazine, focusing on NFL coverage.

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  • Sally Harper

    Beautifully written story. As Ryan’s proud aunt, I cannot say enough how much the power of prayer played a large part in this story having a happy ending, along with the skilled doctors, nurses and emergency staff at Hershey Medical Center. It is difficult even now to recount this tragedy without shedding a tear. Congratulations to Ryan for beating this illness, and not only living, but living his life to the fullest and appreciating it enough to look back sometimes, and help to keep the dialogue going about meningitis so we can keep working on treatment and prevention of this killer. Although not yet mandatory, vaccinations are recommended to high risk groups, including college students as Ryan was when he contracted it. Although it may not be the right choice for everyone, these vaccinations have proven effective in preventing most kinds of meningitis. Thank you so much for this story about this very beautiful soul.