Linda MacHugh

Meningococcal disease at 32

Meningococcal disease

My brother, Richard, died of meningococcal septicaemia in November 1993. He was 32 years old, was very fit and active and had just become a father the week before he died.

The first sign that something was wrong was when he called me at work to say he had a bad flu and had had to go home from work. His wife, Heather, was still in hospital, having given birth a few days earlier. He asked me if I could call his doctor and get some antibiotics for him. I did that over lunch-time and called over to his house after work to deliver them.

By the time I arrived at his house, he was delirious and had a high fever. There was a lot of flu around at the time, but there was something about him that told me he needed a doctor. I called the out-of-hours number, and eventually a doctor called me back. I had to persuade her to call with Richard, as she had spent all day dealing with flu cases and said there really wasn't much she could do.

She arrived about one and a half hours later, by which time Richard's condition had worsened. At first, the doctor thought it was just a bad flu, albeit the worst case she'd seen all day. Then I noticed a mark on his arm that I hadn't seen before. I asked if that had any connection to his condition. She immediately recognised this as the first signs of a septicaemia rash. She acted quickly to call an ambulance and get stronger antibiotics into his system.

Richard was taken to one hospital that specialised in fevers where doctors worked through the night to save him. The next day he was transferred to the intensive care unit of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast where he fought for his life for a week.  Unfortunately he lost his fight, despite the incredible level of care he got in the Royal.

My parents, my sister-in-law and her parents and my husband were all with Richard when he died. We said our goodbyes and spent some time thinking about funeral arrangements. We all agreed that we didn't want money wasted on lots of flowers and wanted donations made to charity instead. I suggested that there might be a meningitis charity, looked in Yellow Pages and found Meningitis Research Foundation. I called them from the hospital and asked if they would accept donations in lieu of flowers.  The person I spoke to immediately offered to come down to the hospital right away to talk to us and support us in any way we needed. We weren't quite ready for that, but the offer was much appreciated, and over the months that followed, the contact we had with MRF helped us to at least understand what had happened to Richard. Going from a happy, smiling new father to being critically ill had taken less than a day, and in some ways it all felt like the sudden death of a car crash.  

I had strong feelings of guilt about Richard's death. It played on my mind that I was the one he had called (not only was his wife in hospital, but my parents were on holiday in Spain on the day he took ill). I kept thinking that I should have realised when he first called me that it was more than flu, or that I should have called for an ambulance the minute I realised how bad his fever was instead of waiting for the doctor to turn up. Every minute counts, and it may just have made the difference and allowed Richard to see his son growing up. I felt that he had been robbed of that experience, robbed of life.

I became more involved with MRF because I wanted to help to spread knowledge about meningitis and septicaemia, both in the medical community and amongst the general public, so that the disease could be beaten. I didn't want any other families to go through the experience that my family had.