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This Woman's Legs Were Amputated And Now She's A Competitive Athlete

Here's how she went from a seven-month hospital stay to becoming a paralympic athlete in three years.

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She started riding competitively after surviving meningococcal meningitis, which resulted in amputations of her fingers and both legs below the knees.

Courtesy Jamie Schanbaum

When she was 20, Schanbaum contracted meningococcal meningitis and doctors made the amputations to save her life. To understand what she's overcome, it helps to understand meningitis.

First of all, it's rare (there are about 800-1200 cases per year), but deadly. According to the CDC, 10 to 15 of every 100 people who contract it will die.

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Meningococcal meningitis is caused by exposure to a bacteria that 1 in 10 people carry at all times (without any signs or symptoms).

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The bacteria is called Neisseria meningitidis. And according to Dr. Len Friedland, Vice President of Scientific Affairs and Director of Public Health for GSK Vaccines, about 10-20% of adolescents have the bacteria in their noses or in the backs of their throats and it doesn't cause any problems. But in rare circumstances the bacteria — which is spread by sneezing, coughing, sharing drinks or cigarettes, kissing, or anything else that involves sharing secretions — can get into the bloodstream or the protective covering of the brain and spinal cord (the meninges).

Once it's in the bloodstream, the patient can end up with what Friedland calls an "overwhelming blood infection." This is what makes meningococcal meningitis very serious and potentially deadly.

Schanbaum started feeling flu-y one night her sophomore year of college.

Peterspiro / Getty Images

It was November and she was at friend's house doing homework, Schanbaum told BuzzFeed Health. "I didn't feel well and I decided to take a nap. I ended up staying the whole night." Soon she was vomiting and her body hurt all over. By the next morning she was so weak she couldn't walk without using the wall to prop herself up. Her sister called to offer her a ride to school. "I said, 'No, I think I need to go to the hospital," Schanbaum said.

When her sister arrived, Schanbaum was on the floor of her apartment; she'd collapsed and was too weak to get up. She was admitted to the hospital that day, within about 14 hours of first feeling sick.

The day after the was admitted to the hospital she was put on a ventilator and into a medically induced coma.

Peterspiro / Getty Images

She doesn't remember a lot of what happened next, other than waking up from time to time see her limbs go from looking like they had a red rash to turning purple to finally turning black. "It looked like I had black gloves up to my elbows and knee-highs that were black."

Friedland explains that the body's response to a serious blood infection is to move blood and oxygen to the organs it needs for survival — the brain, lungs, and heart — which means that anything on the periphery, like the legs, arms, fingers, and toes, start to lose their blood supply. As a result they develop gangrene and have to be amputated.

Schanbaum was so weak she could barely move. "It felt like I had thousands of pounds of sand in me. I was dependent on the nurses to turn me."

After a seven-month stay, Schanbaum was released from the hospital. In 2009 she got prosthetic legs and learned to walk on them.

A year later, she learned to ride a bike.

Instagram: @jschanbaum / Via instagram.com

In 2010, the prosthetist who made Schanbaum's legs told her about athletes with prostheses who "are active on their legs," and use them to ride bikes. Before recovering from meningitis, Schanbaum's cycling experience was pretty much limited to her daily mile-long commute to and from campus. "I barely owned bike shorts before I got sick," she said.

So she started riding a bike that was adapted so she can brake by leaning into the handlebars. And she realized that she not only liked cycling, but with the support of her family, trainer, and prosthetist, she was actually good at it.

Like really good: Her sixth bike ride as an amputee was for a 12-mile race that was part of the 2010 LiveStrong Challenge. From there, she started training seriously and competing in national and international competitions, riding up to about 60 miles per week for training.

She earned her first medal (gold!) in 2011 at the USA Cycling Paralympic Road National Championships.

Courtesy Jamie Schanbaum

Later in 2011 she competed in the Parapan American Games in four events: two road races (12-mile and 24-mile), and two track events (600m and 1200m). She didn't medal in that competition, "but definitely [set] personal records," she says. In 2012, she competed in the USA Cycling Paralympic Road National Championships again and won a silver medal.

Right now she's taking a break from cycling to raise awareness about meningitis risk and vaccines.

Voices of Meningitis / Via youtube.com

"To see outbreaks occur is heartbreaking. My dream is for meningitis to be eradicated," says Schanbaum. And she believes that if more people understood a bit more about meningitis vaccines, they'd take steps to get them.

Friendland agrees: "The best way to treat meningitis is to prevent it," he says.

A combination of two vaccines protect against all five types of bacteria that cause meningococcal meningitis.

Tonpicknick / Via Getty Images

Friedland says although meningitis can be contracted at any time, adolescents and young adults are at an increased risk because they tend to spend time in close quarters — schools, dorms, social spaces, etc. — where secretions can be spread and shared.

The CDC recommends that preteens, teens, and young adults get vaccinated between the ages of 16 and 23 (though preferably between 16 and 18). Adults at increased risk for meningitis (which you can learn more about here) should also be vaccinated.

Schanbaum's mission is spread the word that these vaccines are available and can prevent a rare but deadly infection.

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