Kathryn de Villiers

Meningococcal disease at 19

Meningococcal disease

As a 19-year-old student I had imagined my first few weeks at Cardiff University to be full of new experiences, new friends and new challenges.  Never did I imagine it would be spent in the Intensive Care Unit, fighting a disease that I then didn't even know how to spell, let alone understand.

After a busy few weeks of socialising I was feeling run down; perhaps not surprising seeing as my new-found freedom had encouraged me to attend every social event the Union put on.  Waking up on Thursday 12th October 1998, a date that has stuck with me and my family ever since, I felt there was something more to it than just being run down.  I staggered out of my room and felt as though my legs were about to give way; my head was burning and I was shaking all over.  Friends commented on the heavy night I must have had, and whilst I laughed it off I suddenly felt quite scared; 190 miles away from home, very new friendships and as yet no GP meant that I was very alone.  Despite having my first ever tutorial that day and desperately wanting to go in, I had no option but to go back to bed to 'sleep off' whatever bug I'd picked up.

I slept for most of the day and by 5pm I was feeling better so decided to go down to go to dinner, followed by TV in a friend's flat.  The Eastenders theme tune was blaring out and I suddenly felt as though the room was closing in on me; the lights were piercing and I found it harder to concentrate on what has happening.  I decided more sleep was the best option and made it back to my room, despite feeling as though I could hardly walk as my legs were aching so much.  Thursday night meant 'Disco in the Bar' and I will always be thankful for that disco - had it not been for the incredibly loud beat of the music I fear that I might have been able to sleep, perhaps resulting in very different circumstances.  An hour later and various medical opinions from friends, it was decided a doctor was needed. 

Events become more blurred from there; I can remember the wonderful GP arriving, shots of penicillin, violent sickness, phone calls home and lots of tears. Red marks that I thought must have been bruises were becoming darker and darker and were spreading across my whole body.  An ambulance was called immediately and arrival at A&E felt totally surreal; my last recollection was asking the doctor if I was going to die and his response of 'We're doing everything we can for you'.

Ten days later I finally had more idea about what was happening - a diagnosis of meningococcal meningitis and septicaemia still felt alien and I hadn't truly appreciated what I'd been through or the effects those ten days had on my family.  I was incredibly lucky having only been given a ten per cent chance of survival.

The weeks that followed were fantastic - life suddenly appeared to be a gift, and despite still feeling fragile, I was excited to be welcoming another day having been so close to death.  But these feelings suddenly changed and I felt angry that I had been forced to face death at such a young age - I had been incredibly lucky and it scared me that something so final could happen so quickly, with no real warning. 

After many hours of talking and crying with my family and friends I eventually started feeling more positive, and being well enough to go back to Cardiff was a real turning point.  I knew I had been very lucky and wanted to do something to help others who hadn't been so fortunate as me.  Over the years I have been involved in fundraising and six years after my meningitis experience I ran the Paris marathon raising money for the MRF - something I would never have done if I hadn't had meningitis.  It has definitely given me an inner strength to attempt anything and persevere in achieving that goal. 

I will always be grateful for the care and support I received from the medical services, the MRF and my friends and family.  Ten years on I really didn't think I was still affected by meningitis, but writing this has proved how it is still very much a part of my life and has helped make me who I am today.

APRIL 2009