Viagra Used to Treat Rare Meningitis Attack, Student Fights for Her Life

College sophomore Jamie Schanbaum thought she was coming down with the flu when she started feeling nauseous last fall.

Within hours of first falling ill, Schanbaum, who was studying at her off-campus apartment at the University of Texas in Austin, realized she had something far worse than a simple stomach bug.

"She woke up and had blotches all over her body and felt a weight and coldness in her hands and feet," Patsy Schanbaum, Jamie's mother, told ABCNews.com.

Schanbaum says she is still shocked at how her otherwise "perfectly healthy" 20-year-old daughter, who was known for her skill on the volleyball court and her dream of becoming a pharmacist, has ended up where she is today: awaiting surgery on Friday that will amputate most of her fingers and the lower half of her legs.

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Upon arriving at her Houston-area hospital on Nov. 17, Jamie was diagnosed with meningococcemia, the leading cause of bacterial meningitis, which, instead of infecting the brain, wreaks havoc on the bloodstream.

But within days of being admitted to the hospital, Jamie's condition worsened as doctors discovered she was also suffering one of the rarest complications of the disease.

The bacteria had spread throughout her body and had begun to prevent the blood flow to Jamie's extremities, causing gangrene and impaired circulation.

"This is a very rare complication," said Jamie's doctor, Dr. Peter Lin, who is treating her at St. Joseph's hospital outside of Houston, where she was transferred in December after doctors in Austin had told her the only treatment they could offer was bi-lateral leg and arm amputations.

"This is one of the most devastating complications of meningitis," he said.

But while Lin estimated that 40 percent of Jamie's skin surface had been eaten away by the bacteria when he first took over her care, he says she has made "remarkable" strides toward recovery ever since, thanks to aggressive treatment measures, including time in an oxygen chamber and doses of Viagra, the medication usually associated with treating erectile dysfunction.

Unusual Treatments Yield Promising Results for Meningitis Patient

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that between 1,400 and 2,800 cases of meningococcal disease occur in the United States each year, with the fatality rate averaging somewhere between 10 and 14 percent.

Substantial morbidity -- neurological disabilities, hearing loss and limb loss like Jamie's -- occurs in 11 to 19 percent of cases.

With Jamie's case so severe, doctors wasted no time in starting her treatment. Lin said her skin was covered in scabs and had turned black as a result of the bacteria.

"Jamie was put into an oxygen tank for two hours a day and given high-concentrated oxygen," Lin said. "That increases the oxygen level in her blood, which is needed to accelerate wound healing."

Through the use of the oxygen chamber, known as hyperbaric treatment, Lin said Jamie's dying body tissues were able to regenerate new skin.

Lin also starting giving Jamie doses of Viagra in an effort to stimulate the blood flow to the damaged areas as soon as possible.

"The severity of this complication is almost near fatal in the first place," Lin said. "Now, she'll lose her fingers and her feet but she'll potentially save her thumb, which will allow her to drive a car and type and still have a way to adapt her lifestyle."

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