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meningitis & septicaemia can kill in hours!

People who are faced with meningitis and septicaemia have to act fast to help save a life.

Andrew Sillett

Meningococcal disease at 19

Meningococcal disease

Andrew's story is an example of just how devastatingly quickly meningitis can kill a normal, healthy teenager and how the symptoms can point to other conditions. Our son died on Tuesday 27 April 1999 in Sheffield, which is a long way from our home in West Sussex.  Andrew had just turned 19 and had nearly completed his first year at Sheffield University studying Environmental Science.

Two weeks before his death, my husband Chris and I had returned him to his Halls of Residence and happily waved him goodbye as we set off for a few days on the North Yorkshire coast.  It was the last time we were to see him other than unconscious in a hospital bed.  Andrew was looking forward to the final term of his first year with lots of activities and visits planned. The first was a visit from his girlfriend, Sarah, who was visiting him the weekend he became ill.

Andrew and Sarah had enjoyed their Friday and Saturday, but on the Sunday Andrew felt unwell with a very high temperature and a sore throat.  Sarah persuaded him to visit the University doctor who diagnosed a throat infection and prescribed antibiotics.  Sarah returned home to Horsham later on that Sunday.  However, when she tried to ring him late that evening to let him know she had arrived home safely, she could not contact him and rang us, very worried about him.  We had spoken to him earlier that evening and assured her he was okay, if unwell, and had probably taken himself off to bed.  Sarah's call had worried me though and I rang him again at about 11pm to put my own mind at rest.  He did speak to me but sounded 'odd' and I was concerned enough to say to Chris, "I want to go to Sheffield - now" - mother's instinct?  I don't know but I only wish we had got in the car then and driven to Sheffield, although it was obviously not a very practical thing to do.  

In the early hours of Monday, and unknown to us, Andrew had knocked on his tutor's door to tell him he felt very unwell with a sore throat, slight neck stiffness, a headache and a slight rash on his arm.  The tutor rang for an ambulance and Andrew was taken to the Northern General in Sheffield.  Staff there examined him and sent off blood tests.  They were not unduly concerned, although acknowledged that he was unwell with a severe throat infection or possibly glandular fever. They felt that the rash on his arm was a reaction to the antibiotics he was taking and did not look to them like a rash associated with meningitis and septicaemia.  

During the early hours Andrew's blood tests came back and showed that he was fighting a severe infection. Staff at the Northern General contacted colleagues at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital in Sheffield and spoke to the duty doctor specialising in infectious diseases.  As a result of that conversation Andrew was transferred to the Hallamshire by ambulance.  When Andrew arrived at the hospital he was able to respond coherently and give a history of his illness.  He was unwell though and neck stiffness was noted and as he also had a fine rash on his arms, though not severe, it raised the likelihood of meningitis and the doctor prescribed an antibiotic.  The first dose was given at 7.30am on Monday.  Within an hour of this, Andrew's condition deteriorated quite markedly and he was sedated. His condition never improved and by the time we arrived at the hospital Andrew was on a ventilator and we were told that even if he did recover it was likely he had already suffered some brain damage.

The main medical reason given was the severe swelling of his brain that complicated the meningitis, causing pressure and damage to the vital centres in the brain.  Laboratory tests were unable to confirm the organism causing the infection in Andrew.  Doctors told us this is not unusual but clinically and epidemiologically it was highly probable that it was meningococcus.  The doctor also told us that he had seen many cases of meningitis over the years and not infrequently deterioration after treatment has commenced.  However, he had seldom seen the pattern of rapidly progressive and gross brain swelling that characterised Andrew's illness.

For reasons that we will never know, Andrew did not telephone us and it was not until 9.15am on the Monday, after some desperate telephone calls, that we learned he was in hospital and seriously ill. Despite a frantic drive, we were unable to reach Sheffield before 2pm and were too late to talk to Andrew about what happened.  I can only describe that Monday and Tuesday as a nightmare.  Sadly, after consultations with medical staff, we agreed to turn Andrew's ventilator off at about 5pm on Tuesday 27 April.  

Why didn't Andrew phone us from the hospital? We will never know the reason.  However, knowing Andrew and the person he was, it will have been because he didn't want to worry us.  Meningitis had obviously crossed his mind because when we were later given access to his bedroom by University staff, the floor was covered in books and information on meningitis.

The pain of losing Andrew never goes away but we learn to live with it and he is always in our hearts.  Life has moved on and we have enjoyed many special events, Christmases, birthdays, weddings and the birth of a grandson - all happy occasions but always tinged with the sadness of someone important missing.

YVONNE SILLETT

MAY 2009

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