Meningitis survivor who lost both feet celebrates her 'sweet' life

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by Kevin Reece / KHOU 11 News

khou.com

Posted on February 15, 2013 at 2:16 PM

HOUSTON -- In an award-winning photograph by Paul Vincent Kuntz, a photographer at Texas Children’s Hospital, a young woman stares fiercely at his lens. She is obviously strong, determined, and confident. But the black and white picture captures your attention also by what it does not show. The young woman leaning against a bicycle is missing most of her fingers and both of her feet.

"How I am today? Life is pretty sweet,” Jamie Schanbaum said with a laugh when we visited her at her home in Austin. "I'm more independent than I've ever been. So yeah I like my life currently."

Jamie Schanbaum, the 25-year-old captured in that black and white photograph, glows with that enthusiasm despite her struggles of the last five years.

She was a student at the University of Texas at Austin in 2008 when she contracted bacterial meningitis. The months-long fight would force doctors to amputate both feet and most of her fingers.

But Jamie Schanbaum is the Jamie Schanbaum who helped change Texas Law.

The Jamie Schanbaum Act signed by Gov. Rick Perry went into effect January 1, 2010 and required all new and transfer students living in university housing, fraternities and sororities to be vaccinated against bacterial meningitis.

The law was strengthened to include all incoming students, not just those who live in dorms, after the 2011 death of Niko Williams, a student at Texas A&M who lived in an off-campus apartment.

As for Schanbaum, her work as an advocate for meningitis awareness continues.

She is back in school at UT full-time hoping to graduate next year and pursue a career as a marriage and family counselor. She is also actively pursuing a passion she had before her illness.

“Spectacular,” she said of the ability to ride a bicycle again.

Schanbaum, who walks and rides with the assistance of prosthetic legs, has been cycling for several years now. She’s even considering training for the 2016 Paralympics.

“I think it's just riding, the idea of wind and doing something you thought you couldn't do. Anything that I think I can't do is probably possible I just have to do it in the most ridiculous way possible.”

Ridiculous is not what her mom would call it.

"As a mother I can't even tell you what, I look at her and you know it's just amazing, I'm very proud of her,” said Patsy Schanbaum. "There are so many people that don’t even realize she has a disability. She doesn't let anything stop her."

"She's dealing with this with such amazing grace that it's truly inspiring."

"Are you OK with that,” KHOU 11 News reporter Kevin Reece asked Jamie.

"Yes. I'm definitely OK with those who say I inspire them,” said Jamie. “You know sitting in the hospital bed you have so many doubts about what life could be like because you think of the worst."

"It's just a different perspective of what I appreciate and what others don't.”

What she appreciates now, along with the wind in her hair as she rides her bike through Austin, is a life as a public speaker as an advocate for the meningitis vaccine. Other than that she's just a 25-year-old pedaling for a normal life.

"Yeah, normalcy is what I'm going for. Just striving for success.”

By anyone's measure of success, she's clearly already arrived.

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