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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.

Melanie Corney

Meningococcal disease at 26

Meningococcal disease

It was Friday 9 February 2001 and I was 26 years old living in Farnborough with my then partner Steve. I woke up with a really bad sore throat and felt achy. I worked at a junior school and was due to accompany a group of children to the Roman Villa in Sussex. Normally I wouldn't have taken the time off work, but I felt bad enough to call into work sick.

Over the next few days my symptoms became worse - I developed a cough, achy limbs, headache, was feverish and generally felt very poorly. By the time Monday came around I had passed out once, had sickness and diarrhoea and my headache was terrible so Steve called the doctor out. When my GP arrived she diagnosed a viral infection and prescribed antibiotics. During that night my cough got worse along with my headache and Steve called A&E and spoke to a triage nurse twice who advised him to continue giving me cough medicine but not to bring me to the hospital as there was a long wait. In the early hours of Tuesday I couldn't stand the pain in my head any longer and asked Steve to call an ambulance.

The ambulance arrived and I was taken to A&E at Frimley Park Hospital in Surrey. Initially I was still being sick and had diarrhoea and was losing consciousness every so often. The nurses found it very difficult to check my vital signs as they couldn't seem to find any veins to take any blood, but eventually were able to do this. I must have been given something to stop me from being sick as I remember sitting up not feeling quite as bad. The doctor said I had a severe case of gastro-enteritis. But a little while after this I called a nurse because I was beginning to find it difficult to breathe. A nurse came to check me and whilst doing so looked at my feet and lower legs. I can remember thinking: 'Why are you looking at my feet; it is my head that hurts?' I was then suddenly moved to a resuscitation room and my breathing became increasingly difficult and I was terrified at what was happening. My parents and Steve came into the room and a doctor said they were going to make me go to sleep so a machine could breathe for me, which would make me more comfortable. By this time I really didn't care what they did to me - I couldn't think straight and all I wanted was to feel better.

Unbeknown to me, my parents and Steve had been told I had contracted meningitis and septicaemia. Due to the fact I'd had the disease for four days all my major organs had begun to shut down - in effect I was dying and my only chance of survival was to be put on life support. My body was using all its energy to breathe, so the machine would breathe for me, giving my body the chance to fight the disease. My parents and Steve were told my chance of survival was 30% and they had to prepare for the fact I would probably not wake up from the sedation. All three of them had to come in and say 'goodbye' but not to give me any indication that there was a serious problem as the doctor felt this would panic me.

My memory of my initial stay in hospital is quite sketchy - I know I was taken to ICU where the staff proceeded to give me massive doses of antibiotics every two hours. The drugs I was being given were incredibly strong and they had side effects - I hallucinated, had nightmares and was paranoid. Unfortunately I suppose due to the fact no-one really knew how much I could hear or was aware of, these side effects weren't explained to me so my mind was a very frightening place. I spent 10 days in ICU and for the entire time was on life support - this is quite unusual as people tend to only spend a few days on life support. Being on the machine for this amount of time had caused me to completely lose my voice and my lungs were irritated by the tubing going down my throat.

Luckily I made good progress and after 10 days I was moved to a high dependency ward - whilst on this ward I was taken out of the sedation. This was very traumatic - I can remember coming around and a nurse was sat by my bed. She told me her name, where I was, what I had wrong with me, the date and time - I cried and asked for my mum. I was very confused and spent a good hour crying, especially as it was around 9.30am and my mum wouldn't be allowed in until visiting hours at 11am.

Three days later I moved to a normal ward, and my mum told me I'd need to stay on this ward for two to three weeks before I could go home - to say I was upset was an understatement! I told her I was not staying in hospital for another two to three weeks and that I'd be out by the weekend - Mum looked at me sceptically. I ate and drank what I was told to and worked hard on my physiotherapy as I needed to be able to walk up a flight of stairs unaided before I'd be allowed home. I begged the nurses to let me have a shower as my hair needed washing and I wanted a proper wash - eventually once some major drips had been removed I was allowed to have a shower.

I was discharged on Saturday 3 March, exactly seven days after I arrived on the normal ward! The day I left several nursing staff from ICU and my doctor came to say goodbye - all were amazed I was walking out of the hospital and that I'd survived.

I am one of the lucky ones - not only did I survive but I was relatively unscathed. My only long-term problems have been a permanent cough due to the tubing from the life support that irritated my lungs, I now suffer from migraines, my hearing isn't as sharp as it used to be, my short term memory can be poor and the septicaemic rash that covered my lungs has left them damaged. Psychologically I suffered from Post ICU Stress which is probably similar to Post Traumatic Stress - I was very depressed whilst in hospital and afterwards. I suffered and still do from survivor guilt - no one can explain to me why I survived, especially after having the disease for so long before being treated, and therefore it is harder when I hear of people dying from the disease. No-one can relate to the psychological turmoil that a person feels when they realise they were incredibly close to dying unless they have experienced it for themselves.

I was given no explanation in hospital of what meningitis or septicaemia is or how I managed to develop it. Once I was discharged I went onto the internet and researched the disease and was horrified once I realised how devastating it can be and how close to death I came. This is when I came across the Meningitis Research Foundation - I decided to join because I felt very low and needed someone who understood to talk to. The Foundation were incredibly kind and sent me literature on the disease which I could also pass onto my parents. I also joined their Befriender service, where I was put in contact with a trained person who has experience of the disease so we could talk. This was invaluable to me and really helped me come to terms with what had happened.
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