Emma-Kate McGrath’s legacy will live on thanks to a social media page set up in her honour to push awareness about meningococcal, the disease that took the life of the Ballarat nursing/paramedic student earlier this year.
The 4EK Facebook page was set up only a few weeks ago by a family friend, who was with the McGrath family when 19-year-old Emma-Kate, fondly referred to as Emma, Em or EK, died on May 3 this year of meningococcal septicaemia strain W.
Within 72 hours of the page’s launch it had reached 160,000 people and received more than 7000 followers, including her favourite blogger Uncanny Annie.
“The 4EK page was set up to provide information and awareness to all members of the public about the various strains of meningococcal, the vaccinations available and the signs and symptoms,” the friend said.
4EK was also set up as a “need” for those who loved her to do something positive in Emma-Kate’s memory at a time when it was so difficult to make any sense of what happened and what good could come of her death.
The close friend of Emma-Kate’s parents vividly remembers the day the bubbly teenager died.
“My husband and I were at the hospital with the family the night Emma-Kate passed away. I recall sitting in the grief waiting room and thinking over and over to myself, ‘How could this have happened? She was immunised against meningococcal’.
“I, like so many others had no idea at this stage there were more than one vaccination available and more than one strain of meningococcal that was so devastating and deadly.
“It wasn’t until the strain was identified (W) and the medical staff explained the strains and that there were several vaccination types that we all began to realise how scary this disease was and how important it was that everyone in the community become aware of this information in a hope to prevent another family losing a loved one.
“The other significant thing that alarmed me ... was that in the 24 hours prior to her passing Emma did not present with what I would have considered the ‘tell tale’ signs of meningococcal.
“I said to so many people, I always check my kids for a rash that doesn’t go white when you push on it and a stiff neck … Emma had neither of these things.
“Her main symptoms were severe stomach pains and consistent vomiting. Again, this set off alarm bells – we needed to make sure everyone understood that meningococcal doesn’t always present in the ‘classic way’ we all thought it did.”
It was Emma-Kate’s dedication to her paramedics studies, her volunteer work in Cambodia and a life spent looking out for others which prompted the 4EK information page on Facebook.
“This was beyond our wildest dreams and I sat in tears looking at my favourite picture of Emma-Kate and thanked her for helping us save other people when I saw the statistics (of how popular the page was),” the family friend said.
“The page is not aimed at raising money or even raising sympathy for anyone – it is simply there to try and help.”
Emma-Kate graduated from Loreto College in 2016 and had begun her studies at Australian Catholic University training to be a paramedic.
The world was her oyster and her future seemed exciting and full of opportunities.
She was the centre of everyone in her family's world and had an enormous group of friends who she adored and who adored her.
She was her mother’s best friend, her father's princess, her brothers' amazing sister and the most caring, kind, loving friend to so many.
Since Emma-Kate’s death, the state government brought forward the new immunisation for four of the strains on meningococcal (A,C,W & Y) that is now being rolled out to all 15 to 19-year-olds for free until December 31.
Through the 4EK page, her family and friends want to make sure everyone in that age group is aware of the immunisation program.
Those not aged 15-19 are being urged to see their GP to receive the same immunisation, along with a vaccination for meningococcal B.
How a vibrant young life was cut short
On May 2 this year, Emma-Kate woke her mum, Abby just before midnight saying she felt sick in the stomach, was freezing and had a headache.
Emma took two painkillers and got into bed with her mother.
At around 1am Emma-Kate vomited, had a shower and said she felt better, but still had a stomachache and headache.
At 2am she woke again and was given more painkillers and was asked if she thought she should go to hospital.
Thinking it was just a bug, Emma-Kate refused. When she woke 6am she vomited again and was feeling worse.
At this stage, the 19-year-old, who had been immunised against meningococcal C as an infant, did not have the usual tell-tale signs of meningococcal, a rash or stiff neck.
Abby called her local doctor first thing in the morning and made an appointment for Emma - the first available was 5pm that day.
By 11am Abby knew her daughter had more than the flu or a bug.
She insisted she take Emma-Kate to hospital.
As she was helping her down the stairs Emma said she felt like she was burning, she had severe pains in the stomach, a headache and was very weak.
She was too sick to get to the car, so Abby made the decision to call an ambulance.
Ambulance officers told Abby they weren't sure if she needed to go to the hospital, saying it was most likely just "a gastro-type bug". But, Abby said she’d feel more comfortable if they took her and they happily agreed.
After arriving at the hospital Emma began vomiting constantly and had freezing cold feet.
The nurse pushed her up the list to see a doctor quickly.
Emma's main symptom, at this stage, was still severe stomach pain.
A team of around six doctors ascertained she had a virus of some sort, but the symptoms weren't fitting with any specific diagnoses and none of the treatments they were trying were making any improvement.
At 4.30pm, doctors were confident Emma had a strain of meningococcal.
At this stage Emma-Kate was transferred to ICU.
Her blood was thinning and they were transfusing her with platelets and her organs were starting to shut down.
At this point she started to develop a rash which was spreading quickly.
Doctors advised Emma-Kate and her family that she needed to be placed in a coma.
Her family all got to see her and speak with her before she was placed in the coma.
In true Emma-Kate spirit she smiled and told her parents and brothers that she loved them and that she would be better when she woke up.
The amazing doctors and staff did all they could to save her, but the strain was severe and it took hold of her quickly, despite her strong fighting spirit.
Not long after she was placed into the coma Emma-Kate went into cardiac arrest.
The first time her heart stopped she was able to be revived and everyone breathed a sigh of relief, but only for a moment.
The second time her beautiful heart stopped beating, despite everyone's best efforts, she lost her battle surrounded by those that loved her most and who she loved most.
Her body could not take any more; the meningococcal septicaemia W was simply toxic and had taken hold of every part of her body and poisoned her whole system.
“Emma-Kate’s huge legacy will continue through education and awareness in the hope other families and friends don't ever have to endure the pain meningococcal has caused for those in Emma-Kate's life,” the family friend said.
Emma-Kate’s family is urging anyone with Facebook to like the 4EK page and share it so it continues to reach as far and wide as possible to spread awareness and save lives.