Karen D. Cassard may just be the healthiest 82-year-old around.
“I’m one of those people I get out of bed and I shoot off till the end of the day,” said the energetic retired professional, dedicated volunteer, and loving grandmother.
Sure she’s had a few “mechanical defects,” as she calls them, including 14 surgeries and two bouts of breast cancer, but nothing ever kept her down. That is, until she contracted bacterial meningitis in October 2010.
An especially virulent strain of meningitis, it strikes suddenly and can be fatal if it is not caught early and treated with strong antibiotics.
Cassard says her doctor calls her a “miracle” because, by all accounts, the infection should have killed her. On that October day, she developed what she described as the worst headache of her life. She took two Tylenol and went to bed. After four days of worsening symptoms, Cassard wound up in the emergency department at Memorial University Medical Center (MUMC) where she collapsed.
A spinal tap confirmed the neurologist’s suspicions: bacterial meningitis.
After receiving intravenous antibiotics to fight the infection, Cassard was moved to The Rehabilitation Institute at MUMC. The meningitis had taken away her hearing in one ear and left her severely hearing-impaired in the other ear (she wears a hearing aid now). It also affected her balance, making it difficult to walk without falling. Therapists in The Rehabilitation Institute had their work cut out for them.
Cassard, who traveled the world as an employee of the United Nations for 25 years, found her therapy challenging physically, but mentally mundane. Elie Gold, an occupational therapist, worked with Cassard to help her regain her motor skills.
“Once, she had me make pancakes. I’d never made pancakes! Then I ate them,” Cassard said proudly.
After she was released from the hospital, Cassard continued receiving outpatient therapy at The Rehabilitation Institute twice a week for three months. By June, she felt well enough to visit her daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter in San Francisco.
Fiercely independent, she is no stranger to trials and tribulations. As a U.N. employee, she provided technical assistance in 32 countries in Africa during the 1970s, ‘80s and early ‘90s. After she retired, the U.N. called her back and sent her to Mogadishu, Somalia, as chief procurement officer for the United Nations Operation in Somalia II, or UNOSOM.
“I spent 12 months there ordering goods and services – air conditioners, food, water,” she said. “I had to buy 200 goats a day for the Pakistani troops.”
She was there when a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter was shot down and 19 American soldiers were killed. In the ensuing battle between U.S. and U.N. forces and Somali warlords, Cassard was hit by shrapnel. Undaunted, she rolls up her sleeve to display the scar, which is now part of a colorful series of Guyanese good-luck symbols tattooed on her upper arm. (During a later trip to Brazil, where she was born, she adorned the other arm with a bright green-and-yellow Brazilian flag tattoo.)
But even the Somalia experience pales next to her battle with bacterial meningitis.
“This [meningitis] is the worst thing I’ve ever had to deal with,” she said.
Cassard’s enthusiasm over her therapy impressed Gold and the other therapists. “Elie told me, ‘when you’re finally well, please come back and volunteer,’” Cassard said.
And that’s just what she did. She now volunteers every Thursday in the art therapy class. “This is where they saved my life,” she said. “I owe them.”
It’s a different kind of volunteerism for Cassard. When she moved to Savannah from New York in 2000, she volunteered with various organizations as a way to meet people.
“Since my illness, I don’t do those other things because I can’t,” she said. “I never would have known about this job at the hospital if I hadn’t gotten sick. The therapists are wonderful, so patient.
“Here, your color, your weight – nothing matters to them. They just want patients to get better,” she said. “And they do.”
Her illness has changed her in other ways, as well. “It’s made me more compassionate,” she said. “I can really relate to the patients. I’m not just parachuting in there.
“This has made me a nicer person,” she continued. “I’m not a shrinking violet; when I was younger, I was extremely categorical. I would always jump before I looked. Now I stand at the edge and look before I jump.”
She says the pastor at her church offers another take on her illness. “He says God will always find a way to redeem evil.”
She believes that’s why she’s alive today, with a little help from God and The Rehabilitation Institute at MUMC.