Patrick Henry High School student dies of suspected meningococcal infection

SAN DIEGO - The family of a Patrick Henry High School student who died from a suspected meningococcal infection says she was up to date on all of her vaccines, including the one that prevents most but not all meningitis-causing strains.

Jewelean Pimentel's family released the following statement on Saturday:

"Jewelean Margie Pimentel was a 14-year-old freshman at Patrick Henry High School, where she played flute in the school's marching band. Friends and family members remember the San Carlos teen as a bright, dedicated young woman with a sunny personality who pursued her many interests with quiet determination.

Athletic and fit, she was a member of a competitive cheer leading squadron known as Wrath out of the Cheer Force gym in El Cajon. The team frequently traveled to events around California and to nearby states, and she loved the competitions, taking gymnastics classes to hone her skills. Jewelean also was in Girl Scouts for nine years and recently earned her silver award and attained the senior level. She played softball for several years and also played the piano.

A member of a close-knit family and the oldest of four children, she helped care for her younger siblings, Joey Jr., 11; Joaquin, 7; and Jorja, 5. She helped coach her little sister's cheer team and members of the team wrote messages on green star-shaped mylar balloons and released them into the air after their Friday practice.

"She loved helping the little kids, she loved making up little routines for them," said her mother, Monica Pimentel.

The illness moved devastatingly quickly. Jewelean complained of a headache after school Tuesday; her parents took her to the hospital early Wednesday morning and she died Thursday night at Rady's Children's Hospital.

Tests are being done to determine whether she succumbed to meningococcemia, the bacteria that causes meningitis, which is what the doctors suspect. The family has no idea how she became infected; no one else in the family is ill. Her parents said she regularly received checkups and was up to date on all her vaccinations, including the one for meningococcemia, which officials say protect against most but not all strains of the disease. "She had her vaccine and she wasn't sick at all," her mother said. "She had a headache, but it wasn't bad. She said she was tired."

Jewelean hadn't decided what she wanted to be when she grew up but knew she wanted to attend college. When she was younger, she talked about becoming a veterinarian because she loved animals. "She could have done anything," said her father, Joey Pimentel, a postal carrier. "She just loved everything."

Services are pending. The family says they are thankful for the overwhelming support of friends, family and even strangers. They said it was a testament to the way their daughter treated everybody.

"You can't take a second for granted because you never, never know," her mother said. "Monday, Tuesday, she was a bright, happy sunny girl."

The family has set up a fund to help pay for Jewelean's funeral costs. If you'd like to donate, click here.

Jewelean was a standout cheerleader at Patrick Henry High School and at Cheer Force in El Cajon.

"Jewel was the definition of not letting something negative get the best of you," said cheerleading coach Brendan Mathews. "While not feeling well and not knowing the future, she continued to push herself and make the most out of a difficult time."

Krystal Kammeyer, a close friend and coaching partner, said, "She was sweet, encouraging, funny."

Following news of Jewelean's death, her young cheer mates were devastated.

"We released some balloons today outside," said Kammeyer. "Our 8 and under team and at least four of those children were crying as well as all their parents."

Before Rady Children's Hospital, infectious disease specialist Dr. John Leake spent years with the Centers for Disease Control investigating large outbreaks of meningitis in Africa and the same meningococcal strain that was presumed to be present in Jewel's bloodstream.

"It's an extremely rare and unfortunate event and for most people most of the time, they will never get this even though 10 percent of populations actually carry around potentially serious strains of this in their nose and throat and just become immune," said Leake.

He says Jewelean went from healthy to extremely ill in a hurry. She was first taken to a local emergency room and then transported to Rady Children's Hospital, where Leake says a presumed meningococcal infection had progressed so rapidly, it rendered even the most cutting-edge treatment ineffective.

"We have become so good at treating and curing infections these days," said Leake. "It's always hard to see someone pass away who was so healthy so recently of something that we'd like to think we could treat better."

Leake says the current meningitis vaccine and antibiotic available here are effective in preventing the disease Jewelean may have died from. A booster dose is now being suggested every five years, beginning at age 11.

The meningococcal bacterial infection is known to cause serious illness in children and adolescents, and can infect the blood and cause inflammation of the tissues covering the brain and the spinal cord.

According to the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency,  people in close contact with the student have been notified by health officials that they should receive antibiotics to prevent the infection from developing. The time between exposure to the disease and the onset of symptoms is usually three to four days, though it could take up to 10 days.

The county's public health officer said parents "should always be alert for any signs of infection in their children that could be caused by the meningococcal bacteria."

"The disease is spread through close contact with a person who has the infection and despite the death of this student, there is a low risk that anyone at the school was exposed," Dr. Wilma Wooten said.

This is the second case of possible meningococcal disease reported in the county in 2014 and the first death, according to the HHSA. The agency reported 16 cases and three deaths last year.

Dr. Eric McDonald told 10News, "What's scary about this illness is that it can have a perfectly healthy person who within 24 to 48 hours can succumb to the illness or have devastating consequences."

Symptoms may include fever, intense headache, lethargy, stiff neck, and a rash that does not change color under pressure. County health officials urge anyone who develops the symptoms to immediately contact a healthcare provider or go to an emergency department for evaluation.

A vaccine is available to prevent certain strains of meningococcal disease. The vaccine is routinely recommended for adolescents 11 to 18 years old and individuals with certain medical conditions.

Information about the disease is online at www.sdiz.org.

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