CHAMPAIGN — Carol Bergeson had more than a beloved stepdaughter.
She had a soul mate, she says.
But a contaminated steroid drug that has set off a multistate fungal meningitis outbreak ended the life of Bergeson's 56-year-old stepdaughter, Diana Reed, on Oct. 3.
Mrs. Reed, who was born in Oak Park and lived in Brentwood, Tenn., was believed to be the third person in that state to die after contracting meningitis linked to the steroid injections.
Bergeson, a recently retired social worker who lives in Champaign, says she still can't believe it.
"Even seeing her die, I can't believe it," she says. "It's so ridiculous that some mistake or some accident or some stupidity, and wham-o, and she's gone."
The latest known number of fungal infections linked to the steroid injections has risen to 170 in 11 states, and the death toll has risen to 14 people, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The highest number of infections by state, 49, have occurred in Tennessee, and nearly half the deaths — six — have occurred in that state.
Mrs. Reed was injected with a tainted steroid called methylpredisolone acetate, used to treat back and neck pain, made by a compounding pharmacy center in Framingham, Mass.
The drug has been recalled, but as many as 14,000 people may have received the spinal injections, according to the CDC.
Bergeson says she first met her stepdaughter in 1978. She and her husband — the late Donald Bergeson, a University of Illinois architecture professor — would go visit his daughter three or four times a year. After her husband died in 1989, she continued the visits.
She describes Mrs. Reed as an "effervescent" person who made many people smile and laugh. But Diana Reed also had a deep side and was a avid reader who typically had three books going at once.
"I considered her to be my best friend," says Bergeson, who also has a stepson, Robert Bergeson.
Holding one of her two cats on her lap, Bergeson recalled her stepdaughter's commitment to walking the family dog, Sherman. It was Mrs. Reed who encouraged Bergeson to adopt a couple of cats to keep her company after her husband died, she recalled.
Her stepdaughter was a devoted daily physical helper of her husband, Wayne Reed, a CPA who used a wheelchair and had been diagnosed with a form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — better known as Lou Gehrig's disease — more than two decades ago, according to Bergeson. Mrs. Reed also held an accounting degree and helped Wayne Reed with his accounting work, Bergeson says.
The couple, who have two sons, also helped found the Wayne Reed Christian Child Care Center for low-income children in Nashville, and Mrs. Reed helped her husband keep the books for the center since its beginning, according to the school.
Taking care of her husband limited Mrs. Reed's life in some ways, Bergeson says, but Wayne Reed also took care of his wife.
"He was a rock to her," Bergeson says. "She took care of him physically and he took care of her emotionally."
So many people came to Mrs. Reed's funeral that a church that can hold about 1,200 was packed nearly full, Bergeson says.
Diana Reed had tried other things to relieve her pain before turning to steroid injections, but remembered her husband had an injection in 2002 that made him feel better, Bergeson says.
The first two injections left Diana feeling sick with headaches and nausea, she says, but she had recently lost her job and wanted to get the injections before her health insurance ran out.
"She dreaded going for the third one," Bergeson says.
Mrs. Reed had the third shot on a Tuesday in late September, and when her husband wanted her to go to the doctor, she resisted at first, Bergeson says. By 4 a.m. that following Saturday, one of her sons took her to the hospital, she says.
Bergeson says she asked if she should come to Tennessee.
"She says, 'No, I don't want you to drive all that way,'" Bergeson recalls.
But she was on her way before long.
Early the next week, family members told her Mrs. Reed's condition had worsened so much, she was starting to not make any sense when she was talking, and she was believed to have suffered a stroke. By Sept. 27, she was non-responsive, and a decision was made to withdraw life support the following week, Bergeson says.
Diana Reed had been in otherwise good health before undergoing the steroid injections, Bergeson says. She was careful to eat a healthy diet and didn't smoke.
Looking at treasured family pictures at her dining room table in Champaign, Bergeson says of her late stepdaughter, "You can see how she sparkles."
As far as she knows now, Bergeson says, the Reeds' friends in the community will be stepping in to take over with some of the physical assistance Wayne Reed will need, and a fund has been established in Diana Reed's name to help with expenses.
Sabrina Miller, Illinois Department of Public Health spokeswoman, said on Friday that nothing new has developed in Illinois' ongoing investigation of the steroid deliveries made in this state.
The only known health provider in Illinois to receive deliveries of the steroid from the drug maker, New England Compounding Center, is APAC Centers for Pain Management, according to IDPH. Three locations of APAC provided epidural injections in the Chicago area, but no illnesses in Illinois have been reported to date.
In the aftermath, Bergeson says she remains more numb than angry, but she figures feeling angry won't do any good anyway.
"It doesn't bring her back," she says.
She's thinking now about all the other people who have received those injections and are waiting and wondering if they're going to get sick.
"Please God," Bergeson says, "that they'll be able to save other people."