Suspected Meningitis Victim Remembered as ‘Caring, Wonderful’

Health officials believe Jackie Billings, 52, died from a different strain of meningitis than a local teenager

The mood was somber at the Starbucks on Mast and Magnolia in Santee Tuesday morning.

Two memorials were set up for beloved Starbucks employee Jackie Lerma Billings, 52, who contracted what health officials believe to be a fatal case of meningitis last week.

Some of the mourners didn’t know Billings well; she was simply the friendly woman who made their coffee each morning.

“You meet some people some days. They have a good, uplifting heart. Then it’s sad. It breaks your heart the next day when they’re not here,” said Jason Cruz, a frequent customer.

On a chalkboard inside the coffee shop, people could post their favorite memories of Billings, known to many by her nickname “Jappy.”

On Friday, Billings went to the hospital with what her family thought was the flu. She went home, but returned to the hospital Saturday night. By Sunday, she was in a coma.

Her brother told NBC 7 that Billings was scheduled for surgery Tuesday afternoon to see which organs could be donated. Then, her family would say their final goodbyes.

Many of Billings' friends were like family, including her coffee club that met at Starbucks every Friday morning.

“Jackie was usually getting off of work, and we’d just sit there for hours solving all the problems of the world,” said Nancy McDaniel, who’s known Jackie for seven years.

When asked to describe Billings, McDaniel said through tears, “the most caring, wonderful person you’d ever meet.”

Fellow coffee club member Kaylinn Rasmusson agreed.

“If she was coming, you were going to get a kiss and you were going to get a hug and you weren’t going to get away without it,” she said.

Both close friends and casual acquaintances also described Jackie as thoughtful.

“When people came to get their coffee in the morning, she had their coffee already ordered before she came through the door,” McDaniel said.

“She was an amazing barista. Plus, she got the coffee down right,” frequent customer John Ramirez said with a smile.

Friends told NBC 7 that Billings was very involved in the Santee community, volunteering with the Santana High School PTA, football boosters and cheer team.

If tests confirm meningitis, Billings would be the second person in one week to contract the disease in San Diego County. Patrick Henry High School freshman Jewelean Pimentel died last Thursday, two days after getting sick.

However, county health officials believe Billings died from a different strain of meningitis than the teen. Public Health Officer Wilma Wooten said Jewelean contracted meningococcal disease, a rare strain that gets into the patient's blood. Doctors believe Billings died of a milder, more common strain of meningitis.

Meningococcal disease is different from other strains because in addition to symptoms like headache, high fever, stiff neck and nausea, this one is accompanied by a red rash.

A candlelight vigil for Jackie Billings will take place at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Santana High School football stadium.

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