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. continue reading…