Family turns son’s tragic infection into life-affirming foundation

By Steve Gow

A Hubley family is hoping to remember their son’s inspiring life by reaching out to others about the risks of meningitis B.

In early June, Kai Matthews inexplicably contracted the infection shortly after finishing his first year studying kinesiology at Acadia University in Wolfville. Approximately 30 hours after being diagnosed with the condition, Matthews passed away at the age of 19.

“I had never heard of it,” explains Kai’s father Norrie about the deadly strain of meningococcal disease that particularly targets adolescents and young adults. “(People) think of meningitis as a singular thing. They don’t understand that it’s composed of five different strains, one of which is B.”

While fairly uncommon (cases range between 150 and 250 people per year), meningitis B is a serious condition that causes swelling in the protective membrane that supports the brain and spinal cord.

Caused by bacteria that enters the bloodstream, the infection of the fluid that surrounds the brain can act swiftly with symptoms developing within three to seven days of exposure and — in Kai’s case — can become fatal in a stunningly short period of time.

“Unfortunately it is a rare disease that the cost-benefit ratio for supporting vaccines through the public health vaccine program is not there and for that reason, it’s just not on the radar,” says Norrie about the exclusion of meningitis B from Nova Scotia’s vaccine program.

He notes that while there is an out-of-pocket vaccine to help prevent its transmission, most families don’t even realize it is an option.

“It is not covered under the quadrivalent publicly-funded vaccines and you have to ask for and pay for it,” notes Norrie, adding family doctors often won’t discuss the vaccine with many patients since there is a private financial aspect to it.

In the case of the Matthews family, Norrie insists had they known of the option, they would have gladly paid for such a vaccine before Kai headed off to Acadia University since they had always been diligent their children received the approved immunizations throughout his schooling.

Now in honour of his son’s brief courageous battle, the Matthews family have started the B for Kai Foundation, a non-profit organization aimed to help educate people about the risks of meningitis B and hopefully boost vaccination rates among the public.

“It’s been fantastic,” says Norrie about the community response the organization has received so far. “We are still grieving heavily obviously and we probably always will (but) two weeks after he died, we realized if we don’t do it now, it’s going to be a missed opportunity (and) we wanted to make use of that and tell Kai’s story.”

Since its formation, B for Kai has been very active creating a great amount of awareness about meningitis B and educating people about the disease. 

Most recently, Kai’s best friend, Alex Ryan, created the Be All In Run for Kai, in which he ran 30 kilometres on a treadmill at O2 Wellness in Bedford on October 9 to raise awareness of the disease. On the event’s Go Fund Me page, Ryan has raised more than $6,000 that will filter back to the B for Kai Foundation.

As well, Norrie has teamed up with Acadia University to trial-run what he hopes will eventually be an expanded awareness campaign for post-secondary students about the risks associated with meningitis B.

“We’re going to do a paid social media campaign for education and awareness about Men B,” adds Norrie, saying that in addition to getting the word out, the organization will support vaccinations for students on campus and provide financial assistance where needed. “We are starting with Acadia this fall and we’re also working with other universities.”

B for Kai hopes to expand the more active component of the foundation as well. Just as Ryan’s Be All In Run for Kai was designed with a physical challenge to raise funds, Norrie says he hopes future similar events will take root in honour of his active, outgoing son.

“He was an all-in kind of person in everything he did (and) we want to honour that in that every event we do that’s called a Be All In event, (it) needs to have an aspect of a physical challenge,” says Norrie, adding that the creation of the B for Kai Foundation has provided his family with a special way to process the sudden passing of Kai and give meaning to a very difficult time.

“There’s so many people that want to help out (and) it really does give everybody a source of channelling the grief into something that’s a positive action.”

For more information on the B for Kai Foundation, visit the website.

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