Scout earns Eagle rank in spite of meningitis

  • Eagle Scout Jonathan Stitgen, 18, of Bensenville overcame bacterial meningitis and relearned to walk and talk.

      Eagle Scout Jonathan Stitgen, 18, of Bensenville overcame bacterial meningitis and relearned to walk and talk. Marcelle Bright | Staff Photographer

Published3/31/2008 12:13 AM

Countless Boy Scout Web sites list statistics commonly referred to as "100 Scouts."

The list states that two out of every 100 Scouts attain the rank of Eagle, while one in every 100 will use his Scouting skills to save his own life.


Jonathan Stitgen, 18, of Bensenville already has done both, relying on his Boy Scout traits of bravery and courage.

In March of 2006, Jonathan began his spring break from Fenton High School in Bensenville in a manner not typical of a healthy 16-year-old.

His mother, Gloria Stitgen, said he complained of a headache and was listless.

"His symptoms seemed like the flu," she said.

But Jonathan's flu-like symptoms rapidly got worse, including his inability to stay awake.

"I knew something wasn't right," Jonathan recalled. "I had the most incredible headache you can imagine, and I couldn't eat. Food made me sick. And I was sleeping most of the day."

Jonathan's parents were advised to take their son to the hospital. After multiple tests, it was determined that he had contracted bacterial meningitis and pneumonia.

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"The bacteria got into his blood stream and then entered his brain," his mother said.

As Jonathan's father, Steve, listened to his wife recount the days leading up to their son's illness and hospitalization, his eyes filled with tears.

"We couldn't believe this was happening," Steve Stitgen said.

In the hospital, mega doses of antibiotics weren't sufficient to help Jonathan shake the virus.

Surgeons at Loyola were forced to remove a piece of his skull to relieve pressure on his brain. The Stitgens, including son Alex, reached out to family and friends for support and prayers, including calling members of Jonathan's track team to enlist their well wishes.

"We wanted everyone praying for him," Gloria Stitgen said.

The prayers of people around the country, combined with her son's determination to fight, helped Jonathan survive the first part of his ordeal, Gloria Stitgen said.


But Jonathan's ordeal was far from over.

After three weeks at Loyola, he survived the meningitis but needed extensive rehabilitation to return to normal activities of daily life.

As he remembers, "When I was transferred to Marianjoy, I couldn't walk, I couldn't feed myself, I couldn't talk. I had to be in a wheelchair."

Jonathan also was forced to wear a helmet because a second surgery to replace bone in his skull had to wait until his infection was completely gone.

"The therapists expected Jonathan to be there much longer than a month," Gloria Stitgen said. "But he simply decided he didn't want to be there. He kept pushing and pushing, and he was able to come home the Saturday before Mother's Day."

In addition to determination, Jonathan said his rehab was helped along once he picked up his guitar.

"It took three or four days for my fingers to get back to normal, but once I got them going, I spent most of the day playing," he said. "The nurses and visitors always wanted me to play for them."

Once Jonathan was well enough to go home, things still weren't back to normal, his mother said.

"Jonathan was wearing a helmet, he was on all kinds of medicine. His teachers suggested he could repeat the school year to make things easier."

But Jonathan wasn't ready to give up.

With the help of a tutor, he completed the last quarter of his junior year over summer break, making the high honor roll. And the over-achiever never looked back. He set his sights on completing his Eagle Scout project, which had been delayed due to his illness.

Jonathan decided to coordinate a project removing buckthorn and other invasive species from Itasca's Spring Brook Nature Center. He coordinated a volunteer work day and had 30 people turn out to help, including family, friends and his Scout troop.

"I was nervous, so I got there at 6:30 a.m.," he said. "There were so many of us, we cleared four other sections of the park."

The large turnout helped make short work of the buckthorn-ridden plot of land.

Jonathan was awarded the rank of Eagle and received his patch and medal March 26. His family hosted a formal presentation at Holy Ghost Church in Wood Dale Nov. 24, 2007.

Steve Stitgen said he believes earning an Eagle award is one of his son's greatest accomplishments.

"It demonstrates Jonathan's perseverance and will," Steve Stitgen said. "He just continued to push forward.

"I couldn't be more proud of him," he added. "During the ceremony in November, I just sat there, awestruck. He's accomplished so much. We'll be with him in everything he does."

Jonathan currently is attending College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn and hopes to transfer to an in-state school to pursue a degree in geo-technical engineering.

Is he satisfied with his accomplishments so far?

"It was good to earn the Eagle award," he said. "It's something I've worked toward since I was young. It always seemed like an impossibility."

But for Jonathan, impossible doesn't necessarily mean it can't be done.

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