A routine visit to the Wellness Center turned into a temporary move to another residence hall for first-year student Lindsay Walters. On Sept. 10, the 18-year-old accounting major woke up with one side of her face swollen and went to the Wellness Center to have it checked out.
After examining Walters and speaking with a doctor on the phone, a nurse told Walters the swelling was a symptom of something more serious than a simple infection: It was a sign of mumps, or so they thought. It turned out to be a misdiagnosis that led to four days of unnecessary isolation.
Mumps is uncommon in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but outbreaks do happen. Between Jan. 1 and Nov. 5 of this year, there have been 2,879 mumps cases nationally. Before the U.S. mumps vaccination program began in 1967, there were over 186,000 cases a year.
Because of “close-contact settings,” college students are particularly susceptible to mumps outbreaks, according to the CDC. The largest outbreak between since 2000 happened in 2006, when more than 6,500 cases were reported, most of them on college campuses in the Midwest. From 2015 through June 1 of 2016, there were several reports of outbreaks on college campuses, the two largest occurring in Iowa and Illinois. The CDC’s website lists the most common symptoms, which include swollen salivary glands, fever, headaches and tiredness. Walters’ only symptom was facial swelling.
“When there’s some degree of suspicion of a communicable disease, we immediately contact the Chicago Department of Public Health,” said Joan Holden, the associate director of the Wellness Center, who supervises the medical team there. “The [CDPH] is really the one that dictates how we manage the student with a potential communicable disease.”
Potential contagious diseases that warrant isolation include measles, mumps, meningitis and chickenpox, said Holden. Situations where students would have to isolate themselves because of a suspected contagious disease are “very unusual”; Holden estimated it has occurred fewer than five times in the past year, but she said the Wellness Center has a plan in place despite the rarity of such incidents.
Because mumps is so contagious, the nurse told Walters she had to isolate herself in case she had the disease.
Holden said any time the Wellness Center asks a student to “limit contact” with others, it comes from the recommendation of the CDPH. The Wellness Center does not hold students against their will. So if a student refuses to isolate themselves, the situation, the disease and guidance from the CDPH would determine the Wellness Center’s course of action, Holden wrote in a follow-up email to The Phoenix.
After her initial visit to the Wellness Center about the facial swelling, Walters went back to Simpson Hall, where resident director Chris Harden walked her to Fordham Hall and directed her to an empty triple room.
Walters said her roommate and Harden, who could not be reached for comment, helped Walters move into Fordham.
“We have anywhere from one to a number of emergency spaces that we have on campus that are vacant, and we typically have those available for any number of reasons” such as health issues or facilities emergencies, said Jennifer O’Brien, Residence Life’s associate director for housing operations.
The next day, the swelling on her face was gone, but the Wellness Center was still running tests and had not yet determined if she had mumps.
“I was like, ‘I’m totally healthy,’ and I also had been vaccinated, so I don’t really know why it was even a threat, but [the nurse] was like, ‘No, you have to stay [in Fordham],’” said Walters.
The Wellness Center originally told Walters she could leave on Sunday, but they called her that day to tell her she had high levels of the protein amylase in her blood, a symptom associated with mumps. The Wellness Center said Walters would be able to leave isolation either when they got results back from another test, or on Wednesday, because even if Walters had had the mumps, it would not have been contagious by Wednesday — five days after her diagnosis.
During her isolation, Walters received a total of four phone calls from the Wellness Center and Residence Life staff.
“It’s our responsibility to communicate with [students], and we do that very regularly,” said Holden.
Walters tried to pass the time as best she could, but missing out on classes and track practice was stressful for her.
“I couldn’t go to class, I couldn’t go to practice … and it was so bad,” she said. “I had a major accounting test on Friday, and I had no idea what was going on.”
Walters brought food with her when she first moved into the room, but she said late afternoon on Monday was the first time anyone from the school called to ask if she wanted anything to eat.
Residence Life, the Wellness Center and Aramark work together when it comes to supplying food for sick students, said O’Brien. Aramark gives the student a menu, she said, and the meals the student chooses are delivered to the room. The student picks meals at night for the next day.
Walters said she did not receive a menu, and she said she wasn’t asked if she wanted food until two days after her initial move to Fordham.
On Sept. 12, she went to the Wellness Center to take a swab test, and while she was there, Wellness Center staff told her they would have someone call her about food, said Walters. At about 3 p.m., she said she received a call from a resident director in Fordham, who asked her if she wanted anything to eat, but she declined because she had brought food with her.
After the swab test, Walters returned to Fordham to discover that her door would not open and she had to wait downstairs until maintenance unlocked it. About two hours after Walters returned to the room, she said she got a call from a nurse at the Wellness Center who said the staff had received reports that she left the room.
“I was like, ‘Wait, no one here should know that there’s something wrong with me,’” said Walters. “They would have had to share the fact that I’m under some sort of medical issue with a disease or something for people to have known that and then complained about it.”
The idea that others in the building apparently knew she was not supposed to leave upset Walters.
“If I were to end up having [ mumps] and people were to find out about it, I feel like that would really affect my social life here,” she said. “[The Wellness Center] must have said something to someone, because I didn’t say anything to anyone.”
Holden said that the resident director in the student’s temporary residence hall would know that the student is there and needs to stay in a certain area, but that is the extent of the resident director’s knowledge. Leadership in residence life would also be aware of the student’s location. It is up to students to follow the Wellness Center’s instructions and stay in the room.
On Tuesday afternoon, Wellness Center staff called Walters to tell her that she did not have mumps and was allowed to move back into Simpson Hall. The facial swelling, they said, was probably caused by an infected gland on the side of her face.
If a student does end up having a contagious disease, said Holden, the Wellness Center prefers to send students to an off-campus location. If that is not possible, staff will take recommendations from the CDPH on where to place the student.
Walters said she understands why the Wellness Center isolated her, saying the fact that she lives in a city and on a college campus would increase the seriousness of a possible breakout of mumps. However, she said she thinks that if a doctor had actually seen her, it would have been clear that she did not have mumps.
Despite the stress of the ordeal, Walters appreciated how the Wellness Center staff treated her.
“They were really nice about it; it’s not like they treated me like I was gross or sick,” she said.
Adjusting to college life was a big change for Walters, so being isolated “put a lot of undue stress on the first few weeks of school,” she said. “It wasn’t devastating to my college experience at all, but it definitely had a big impact.”