Losing my only sibling when I was 16 years old was tragic, unexpected and at first I couldn’t imagine how I could ever cope without my sister. To those reading this who may be going through similar experiences, all I can say is take it one step at a time and accept help from those closest to you. You never forget but you learn to live with it and you become a stronger person as a result with a different outlook on life.
My sister, Anne Fletcher, died from staphylococcal septicaemia on 4 September 2001, just a week after her 18th birthday. She was due to start at St Andrew’s University and was looking forward to meeting Prince William. She was the picture of health, however septicaemia took hold of her within days and left her fighting for her life in intensive care. Tragically, Anne never woke up.
It was Friday 24 August and Anne had got her A Level results the day before. We were to go to Windsor that weekend, just the two of us. That morning Anne complained of a headache however we left as planned thinking it would pass. As it turned out Anne ended up vomiting and feeling ill the whole weekend. I recall that on the Sunday when we were travelling home she seemed to get worse; she was leaning on me as she walked as she felt really lethargic. She also got a fever and went really shivery.
When back home that night Anne became so weak she was hardly able to get out of bed. Mum was up most of the night with her and rang the emergency doctor to come out. This doctor gave a diagnosis of gastric flu. Anne then started to get a rash on her hands and feet and the NHS helpline were called. They advised the tumbler test to see if the rash disappeared, which it did, to confirm it wasn’t meningitis. The doctors were then called out again later the same night and the second doctor arranged for an ambulance to take Anne to hospital on the Monday morning.
Monday 27 August was Anne’s 18th birthday but instead of being excited about going out for her first drink and opening her presents she was being admitted into hospital. She was put on a medical assessment ward in the Royal Bolton Hospital and blood samples were taken, however it would still take a few days to get the results back.
On Tuesday there was no improvement and when visiting Anne in the evening she had become delirious. She spoke of seeing racing cars and cats on the ceiling. I’d been to the Trafford Centre that day and had bought her a stuffed monkey which I’d dressed as a nurse and left with her at the hospital.
On the Wednesday Anne’s rash had become a lot worse; it looked angrier and was now all over her body. There was still no diagnosis for her illness however a dermatologist saw her and prescribed some cream which I helped put on her skin to assist with the rash. She wasn’t eating or drinking well at this point and wasn’t as talkative as the previous day. I said goodbye as usual and that I would see her the next day. That would be the last time we ever spoke.
I was at home on Thursday when I got a phone call saying Anne had been admitted into intensive care. The news was devastating and my experience at 16 years old of such things had been from watching TV and seeing people hooked up to machines. I don’t think I’ve ever been so overcome with emotion as I was when I got off the phone that day. I cried and screamed so much that I had a panic attack. I pulled myself together as best as I could and made my way to the hospital.
That morning Anne’s condition had deteriorated to the extent that she had to have an oxygen mask put on her to breathe. She was sedated and put on life support at this point. The doctors still didn’t know what was wrong with her and various different things were mentioned, one of which was toxic shock syndrome.
Later that day the blood test results came back and finally Anne was diagnosed as having staphylococcal septicaemia. Intravenous antibiotics were used to reduce the toxins in her blood but by this point the septicaemia had spread and was affecting her organs. She was also put on a kidney dialysis machine.
It was very difficult to see Anne on life support in intensive care and she didn’t look herself at all. She had swollen to about three times her normal size due to the imbalance of fluid in her body, plus she still had the rash. But she was still my big sister and as difficult as it was I would sit and talk to her, plait her lovely blonde hair and play her music. There was still hope but it seemed to be getting more and more distant. All we could do was pray and try to stay strong, somehow.
We were told to go to the hospital urgently on the morning of Saturday 1 September as there had been a complication with Anne’s condition. A CT scan revealed Anne had cerebral odema (water on the brain) and this made her condition much worse. We were warned by the doctors that in the event that Anne did wake from her coma she may be brain-damaged.
The decision was made by the doctors that weekend to bring Anne off sedation to see if anything positive would happen and in effect test if her brain was working. Nothing remarkable happened but I think her eyes flickered or she breathed on her own ever so slightly. The doctors disagreed on what should be done next. One of the doctors thought life support should be switched off at that point however the other doctor decided to sedate Anne for a further 24 hours in light of the, albeit remote, sign of life displayed when sedation had been withdrawn.
On the Monday the sedation was withdrawn again and there was no positive response. Doctors carried out brain stem tests on Tuesday to establish whether Anne had any continuing neurological functioning. One of these tests involved shining a light into her eyes to see if her pupils would dilate. The two doctors concluded Anne was brain stem dead and could not function without the assistance of artificial ventilation.
There was no alternative other than for my parents to agree to switch off Anne’s life support. She had passed away after all and nothing else could be done.
I spent a little time with Anne after the life support had been switched off, with her face covered up by a blanket, to say my goodbyes. My parents wouldn’t allow me to see her for the last time like that…
One of the doctors told my parents he’d only ever seen three cases of septicaemia like Anne’s, given that there was no obvious site of infection. She had eczema therefore we can only assume that the infection made its way into her blood through her having scratched her eczema.
I would say there is a lack of awareness about septicaemia, not only in members of the public but also within the medical profession. A number of days passed when Anne was critically ill without the doctors being able to diagnose her condition. Perhaps if she had been diagnosed sooner and given antibiotics earlier the outcome would have been so different.
Anne was not only my sister but my best friend too. We were inseparable and shared so much growing up. There is still not a day that goes by when I don’t think of her and wish she could still be here.
It helps me to cope with Anne’s death to fundraise for Meningitis Research Foundation in her memory and turn the sadness and negativity into something positive which will help others. Helping others means that Anne’s tragic death wasn’t in vain.
I am running the Great North Run for the MRF in September 2012 and hope to run the London Marathon in April 2013.