Cal basketball player dies of meningitis

WALNUT CREEK, Calif. – A University of California Berkeley women’s basketball player died Monday morning at Kaiser Oakland Medical Center, apparently from bacterial meningitis.

Alisa Lewis, a 20-year-old junior who played high-school basketball in Fairfield, Calif., died a few hours after she was brought to the emergency room with a severe headache, rash and flu-like symptoms. Her sudden death came less than three days after Lewis sat on the bench during the team’s last game, against Stanford University at Berkeley on Friday.

Final tests on Lewis, a 5-foot-11 reserve forward, had yet to be completed Monday, but Kaiser doctors said Lewis appeared to have bacterial meningitis, said Dr. Peter Dietrich, the university’s medical director.

Teammates were told of her death at a meeting Monday morning, and practice was canceled for the day. The team was expected to spend Monday evening at the home of one of Lewis’ teammates.

“Alisa was one of the nicest, hardest-working players I’ve had the opportunity to coach,” Cal head coach Caren Horstmeyer said in a written statement. “We’re all in a complete state of shock.”

Bacterial meningitis strikes about 1 in 100,000 people in the United States each year, and about 10 percent of those patients die, according to the Meningitis Foundation of America.

The disease is spread through “intimate” contact, Dietrich said, such as kisses or shared water bottles. Each of Lewis’ teammates was given a dose of antibiotics Monday as a precaution, but none of the players showed signs of the disease, Dietrich said.

Doctors had not yet determined the source of Lewis’ illness, he said.

“It can happen just like this, where you don’t know why one particular person comes down with it,” Dietrich said. “We just don’t understand everything yet about bacterial meningitis.”

Teammates, friends and other students have little to worry about, Dietrich said, but doctors are keeping an eye on people who came into close contact with Lewis over the weekend.

Lewis, a social welfare major, lived off-campus with teammates Leigh Gregory, a Carondelet High School graduate, and Kristin Iwanaga.

University officials said they had not yet decided whether other practices or games would be canceled. The team is scheduled to travel to Los Angeles this week for Friday’s game against USC and Sunday’s contest at UCLA.

Lewis had played in 10 of Cal’s 16 games this season, averaging 1.9 points and 8.1 minutes per game. She played three years at Fairfield High School before transferring to Gonzaga Prep in Spokane, Wash., for her senior year.

Lewis’ death came on the heels of an outbreak of bacterial meningitis in Danville, where three students came down with the disease in December. The students – two from San Ramon Valley High School and a college student home for winter break – recovered.

About 10 to 25 people in Alameda and Contra Costa counties contract bacterial meningitis each year. In 2001, a 16-year-old Livermore High student died of a meningcoccal blood infection, and two others were hospitalized.

The bacterial form of the disease is more serious than the viral version, which also causes flu-like symptoms.

Symptoms of the bacterial strain include sudden severe headaches, mental changes such as lethargy and neck pain. Doctors suggest that anyone with those symptoms seek immediate medical care.