ELKHART — It started with back pain and ended with the most difficult thing he has ever endured.
Josh Nice was in good shape. He exercised, his cholesterol levels were normal and the students at Mary Daly Elementary School where he serves as principal kept him in good spirits.
A workout injury that resulted in three herniated discs in August brought Nice to OSMC Outpatient Surgery Center in Elkhart. He received injections to relieve pain in his back. On Oct. 5, he discovered that those medications were doing more harm than good. The clinic had contacted close to 400 patients, including Nice, who had been exposed to a contaminated batch of injections. About 75 other clinics in 23 states were dealing with similar situations.
Nice woke up the next day with a slight headache. A day later, the headache had worsened and he developed a fever. He went to church that morning, hoping his symptoms would subside.
“Had I not gotten that phone call, I would’ve thought I had the flu,” he explained.
But by the time the Sunday service was over, Nice was ready to go to the emergency room at Elkhart General Hospital. There, doctors performed a lumbar puncture to test his spinal fluid and determined that he had fungal meningitis, a rare condition caused by the tainted injections.
Close to 500 people in 19 states have been diagnosed with fungal meningitis, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The infection has been blamed for more than 30 deaths, including six linked to Indiana. Two Elkhart County residents have died from complications with the infection.
Nice was amazed how quickly his symptoms progressed. He stayed at EGH for the next 11 days to recover from the infection. At one point, doctors and nurses at the hospital were treating as many as 18 patients with fungal meningitis.
Each day, Nice pried himself out of his hospital bed and tried to visit the other fungal meningitis patients in the unit.
“Understanding that others had it worse off, I almost felt like it was my job in the hospital to cheer others up and keep others feeling positive,” he said.
At 32, Nice was one of the youngest patients in the unit.
“It just made me appreciate the health I was in, the support I had from church and school, and it was just odd to be one of the numbers in something like this,” Nice said. “Even though I didn’t know everybody in there, we were all going through something together, so I spent a lot of time praying for them. It gave me a new sense of compassion for others dealing with this illness.”
Dozens of lawsuits are expected to be filed in the Michiana area against the New England Compounding Center, the drug company that manufactured and distributed the tainted medications. At least 12 complaints have been filed against the company and its owners in Elkhart County, but Nice said he will leave litigation up to the government and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“I have a great appreciation for the job that nurses, nurses aides and doctors have to do,” Nice said. “I got tremendous care, and I’m really grateful for what Elkhart General was able to put together.”
During his stay at the hospital, there were three things Nice missed the most — his family, his friends at Pathway Assembly of God in Middlebury and the nearly 500 kids at Daly Elementary. In fact, Nice visited the school for about an hour the day after he was released from the hospital’s care. Shortly after that, he started working half days for about a week until he went back to work full-time.
It has been a difficult school year, Nice said. Kristyana Jackson, a second grader at the school, was shot and killed in an attempted home invasion in August, a tragedy that left emotional scars among students and teachers. Nice helped organize a tree-planting ceremony at the school earlier this month in memory of the 7-year-old girl.
“I’m thankful that what I have is not infectious, that I’m able to come back to work, and I want to help Daly continue to heal from things we’ve already dealt with this year,” Nice said.
Nice bounced back to health relatively quickly, though he is still under the watchful eye of doctors. He credits his recovery so far to the EGH health staff, infectious disease specialist Dr. Sheree Peglow and unending support from friends and family. But everyday life is not back to normal, Nice noted. He is on a regimented eating schedule, takes antifungal medications twice a day, has weekly blood tests and visits a doctor every other week.
“This is supposed to last for about three months, and then they will re-evaluate after that,” Nice explained.
Nice said the past few months dealing with fungal meningitis have been humbling.
“The most challenging thing in this experience, and perhaps the biggest blessing too, is realizing that I’m reliant on God and others and can’t do everything myself,” Nice said. “I’m so thankful for the people around me.”