Lunch with Marjorie: The five minutes that changed her world, part one

I didn’t know Jennifer Steines until recently. A blue and white fund-raiser wristband a Roscoe teen was wearing led me to her and the story of her 6-year-old daughter, Kaitlyn, who contracted a virus four years ago that traveled to her brain, resulting in multiple daily seizures.

Neither Jennifer nor I are vegetarians, but we both opted for Roscoe’s Anna Maria’s Restaurant’s amazing cheese tortellini.

The family-owned eatery has the best Italian food I’ve found in the stateline—tender pasta with memorable marinara sauce. Food talk didn’t last long. It was Kaitlyn on Jennifer’s mind.

“I thought she had an ear infection,” Jennifer said. “She was whiny. The pediatrician said it was probably just a virus. But you read your kid. That’s why I do respect my pediatrician. From day one, she’s believed that as a mom, you know best. I don’t cry wolf. That was Friday.”

Monday, Kaitlyn kept getting whinier, and Jennifer called the doctor to say something was terribly wrong.

“Her white cells were elevated. Immediately they thought meningitis,” Jennifer said.

They went to a Rockford hospital for a spinal tap.

Jennifer’s husband, Cale, was at work—at Chrysler, where he’s a clinical psychologist. Their 12-year-old son, Brennen, and 10-year-old daughter, Alison, were at school.

“The tap came back negative…but she kept getting more and more lethargic,” Jennifer said. “She was exhausted, but couldn’t sleep. They didn’t know what to do. I was in a hospital, and she was having a seizure. She started foaming at the mouth.”

In the middle of the chaos, Cale called. Jennifer told them to get him there immediately.

“He didn’t know. On the weekend, she was walking and talking. It happened in a matter of hours,” Jennifer said.

At the hospital, Jennifer was crying hysterically. The staff wanted her out of the room.

“I thought she was dying,” Jennifer said of her daughter. “They had taken her to ICU. She had had a grand mal seizure. It’s your entire brain…you see a lot of jerking…don’t have any mental capacity to know what’s going on. There was a wonderful lady there…(who) came up and talked to me. I started hyperventilating and almost passed out. Had she not been there to calm me…then Cale showed up. They wouldn’t let me see her in ICU, but once they told me it was a seizure, I felt relieved. I knew they had given her stuff to stop the seizure. I felt like my whole world, in five minutes, completely changed.”

“You have a strong marriage,” I said.

“Oh, I have a great marriage,” Jennifer said. “We were best friends before we ever dated.”

That was at Northern Illinois University, where Jennifer earned her degree in economics.

“There’s always that respect thing,” she said.

“You talk?”

“Yeah, we do.”

“Sounds like this helped you get through all of this,” I said.

“Oh, I couldn’t have done it alone. I’ve always kind of had…not smooth sailing. I mean a happy life…but it was always one fiasco after another. Our whole family is real close, although my Mom passed away from breast cancer, right after Kaitlyn got sick.”

“When I was pregnant with Kaitlyn…driving my son’s friend home…I was at Dorr and Rockton Road—before there was a four-way stop sign there. A truck slammed into me. No injuries you could see on the outside, but I started having problems with my neck, and with the pregnancy. They thought everything looked OK, but found out, she was a twin. I ended up losing one of the pregnancies. Part of us always wondered (if Kaitlyn’s) illness could have been due to that accident.”

After Kaitlyn’s seizure at the Rockford hospital, it was a week before Jennifer and Cale convinced them to transfer Kaitlyn to a bigger Chicago hospital for more tests.

“They didn’t know what was going on,” Jennifer said. “She kept having seizures. So they flew us from Rockford to Chicago.”

“Did they know it was a virus?”

“No. Well, the reason they thought she had a virus was because her white blood count was so high, and she broke out in a viral rash all over her body.

In Chicago, they did another spinal tap. Nothing was conclusive.

“They said, ‘We see this all the time’,” Jennifer said of the hospital staff in Chicago. “They thought it was encephalitis…a virus that spreads to your brain. You hit rock bottom, then you start to get better—if you’re going to make it. But her seizures were getting worse. The seizures are what caused the damage. We were there for three days. They said everything looked good, ‘everything should be fine.’ They sent us home, supposedly with a clean bill of health. But I didn’t want to go. I tried to tell them…she’s not fine.”

Marjorie Stradinger is a free-lance writer residing in Roscoe. She has covered food, drama, entertainment, health, and business for publications in California and Illinois for the past 25 years.

From the Oct. 12-18, 2005, issue

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