Meningitis in your words

Aaron Phipps MBE's story

  • Categories: Other bacterial meningitis and septicaemia (sepsis) type
  • Age: Teenager
  • Outcome: Recovery with after effects
  • After effects: Amputations
Aaron Phipps MBE
Aaron Phipps MBE - Meningitis in your words

Gold medal-winning Paralympian, Aaron Phipps MBE, had to have both legs amputated from the knee down, along with most of his fingers, after contracting meningitis at the age of 15. After spending a year in hospital to recover, he cites the experience as having given him the drive to seize the opportunities life gives him. 

I was 15 years old, living with my mum, my dad, and my younger sister (who is four years younger than me). I was always quite an active kid – in the scouts, ATC, I liked fishing, being out on my bike, all that kind of thing. 

I was in Year 11 and it was the first day back to school after the Christmas holidays. I got home from school and told my mum that I didn’t feel great. But, it was January so there were loads of things flying around, so we didn’t think anything of it, we just thought I’d caught a regular flu.

My mum took my temperature, which went up. I got into bed, took some paracetamol, went to sleep – as you do. I got up and vomited twice in the night, cleaned my teeth and got back into bed, as you do when you’re poorly.

My dad woke me up in the morning and asked how I was – to say I was feeling rubbish was putting it politely! I got up to go to the toilet and I collapsed on the landing. Dad ran upstairs, scooped me up and put me into my parents' bed. My mum saw a rash appearing on my chest. She vaguely knew the symptoms of meningitis and asked my little sister to bring a glass, except my sister didn’t understand why, so she kept bringing a glass of water. My mum explained that she just needed a glass and pressed down on the rash – the rash didn’t disappear. 

Mum called out a doctor, who called out an ambulance. The time from my very first symptoms, to being on life support machines, was 12 hours. From the rash appearing, to being on life support machines, was one hour. Can you imagine if it had been the weekend and my parents had decided to let me lie in? It probably would have been a different story.

The scary thing is, if you look at my symptoms, I had a fever and I vomited twice. That’s it. Ironically, I think if I had gone to the hospital earlier, I would have been sent home. You wouldn’t instantly think ‘oh this person has meningitis’. You’d tell them to take some paracetamol and go to bed.

My mum came with me in the ambulance. My dad took my sister to our grandparents. I arrived at the hospital very confused and not knowing what was happening. From then, I was sedated and fed really strong antibiotics, as were my parents as a precautionary measure, which made them sick. The medics told my parents there was nothing else they could do, and my family needed to come in to say goodbye.

I developed sepsis and, although I did wake up, it was machines that were keeping me alive. I was presented with a situation where it became clear that I was going to have to have the tips of my fingers and my toes amputated. Then the medics broke the news to me that it wasn’t just going to be that – it was going to have to be my feet as well. It was really, really difficult. 

What happened next was my rehabilitation, I was down to about seven stone and pretty much as close to death as anyone could be at that time – I was one of the first people with that level of illness that they managed to save. It was really tough. 

Looking back, I wish I could just pick myself up now, as a 15 year old in that bed, and say, “You know what? Things work out alright.”

I was in hospital for a year. I became poorly in January. I had my legs amputated in March and then, because I had lost so much skin from the sepsis, it took another nine months of skin grafts to save my knees. It was so hard for my family too – they were flying back and forth to the hospital and then my sister was just having to watch it all as well while she was growing up. I don’t think I was fully able to appreciate what my family went through until I became a parent myself. We have a tendency to blame ourselves, which is ridiculous because it’s no one’s fault. It’s just one of those things. 

I was 15, which is hard enough with all the hormones flying around, and then to have this catastrophic thing happen to me (and all the demons that come along with that as well), it was horrendous. What it did do though, was spark something inside me – it made me very aware of my own mortality. It made me very determined to get on with my life the best that I could. 

Aaron Phipps - scenic photo in mountains with snow

Meningitis was the worst and best thing that ever happened to me. The worst for obvious reasons, but then also the best because I now get to do all these amazing things. Before I became ill, I was always pretty active, but I never really did team sports because I was a bit of a wimp, to be honest! But after I was poorly, I had this drive and determination that I never had before – I figured if meningitis can’t kill me, nothing can, so I stopped really being scared of anything. When you’ve been through something like that, it puts everything in perspective. 

I wouldn’t say having meningitis changed my personality, but you are defined by the things that happen to you, so it has made me take opportunities. I became really aware that you only get one chance, and I knew I had to do something, even if I didn’t quite know at that stage what it was. I started raising money for Meningitis Research Foundation, doing local wheelchair racing. That progressed to me doing the London Marathon a few times and it was there that I was head-hunted to join the Great Britain national wheelchair rugby team. 

aaron Phipps - training

Looking back, I wish I could just pick myself up now, as a 15 year old in that bed, and say, “You know what? Things work out alright.” Things were so tough, and I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t know if I would ever have a girlfriend, or anything. And now, I’ve got a beautiful young family and I’ve played international sport – I’m happy. You’ve got to stay positive. As horrible as meningitis is, you’ve got to try and work on the positives of what is happening to you. Otherwise, you can go down a rabbit hole and it can be hard to get out of it. 

Aaron Phipps - giving a talk

I would strongly encourage people to get the meningitis vaccination if they can. Since it was first introduced, the number of cases of meningitis dropped massively, so the results speak for themselves. It’s also important to trust your instincts. There have been so many people I have met along the way, who have been through this journey, and they just knew that something wasn’t right. If you get that feeling, just go and get it checked out. People are often so worried about wasting doctors’ time, but you’re not. They would much rather you go, and it be a false alarm, than if you leave it and it goes the other way, and you end up in a much worse scenario. 

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