Meningitis in your words

Elizabeth O'Donnell's story

  • Location: Northern Ireland
  • Categories: Meningococcal
  • Age: Teenager
  • Relationship: Self
  • Outcome: Full recovery
Elizabeth O'Donnell

My illness developed slowly over a period of maybe three months. Firstly pain in my chest, then general debility and finally headaches. I tried to relieve the headaches by taking all the usual remedies until finally I just couldn't go on and fell down. It was April 1956 and I was 15 years old.

I can remember walking up the road and, on a short incline about 700 yards from my home, I just couldn't go any further and had to stop. I stood and looked back and then turned to the direction I was going, there was no-one in sight and I thought to myself, "how am I going to get to the top of that hill!?" That is all I remember, my mother filled me in on the events of the next few weeks.

"The doctor said it would be at least six weeks before he could say whether or not I would survive."

Our local GP tried several treatments without success and then called a specialist, Mr RG Vine. Mr Vine came to my home and did a lumbar puncture by the light of a Tilby lamp. We didn't have electricity at that time but we did have a telephone. Next morning I was admitted to 'Fever Hospital' in Derry. I was in a coma and extremely ill. The doctor said it would be at least six weeks before he could say whether or not I would survive. He said there could be total loss of any one or more of the five senses.

My body was rigid, all feeling had gone from my limbs and my eyes were closed. Overhead lighting couldn't be used so the light was kept under my bed.

My right eye opened but the left one had to be forced by me holding my hand over it for periods of time each day. Eventually my left eye did open but as can be seen from the snapshot it is somewhat smaller than the right eye, (something I have always been self conscious about), but thank God my eyesight was not affected.

My body was so thin, and I got terrible bedsores. They were treated several times daily with what I think was methylated spirits. I was given a special mattress and had to lie on air rings. I was getting so many injections there was hardly a needle space left.

When feeling began to return to my limbs it was very painful and I couldn't bear the weight of the bedclothes, so a cage was put in my bed. I developed shingles and on such a thin body the spots were deep and very painful. The rash was painted daily with a liquid that formed a thick skin. When after a period of time this skin was pulled off I was left with a body of open sores. During and after the healing of these wounds the itch nearly drove me insane. I still have the scars!

"I didn't talk about it and would never discuss it with anyone."

The x-ray machine was taken into my ward when required, but then there was an occasion when I was taken in a wheelchair across the yard to the general hospital for x-ray and that was the only time I remember being outside my ward. By this time I was being lifted out of bed to sit on a chair by the window. However the lower half of the glass was painted for privacy (today it would be modern blinds) and I couldn't see out unless I held the window rail and stood up. This I did, but after a very short time, severe pain in my legs made me sit again.

The treatment was severe but I didn't talk about it and would never discuss it with anyone. Luckily medicine has advanced a lot in 50 years.

I lived in a wee world of my own in my isolation ward. I had a transistor radio and I enjoyed listening to music, and I liked to read. I can honestly say that I never felt bored. I wasn't aware of how ill I actually was, and was months in hospital before I asked my mother one day "what is wrong with me?".

By Christmas of 1956 I could get around a room by holding onto furniture and in March 1957 I was released from hospital, but had to go back for check-ups every month, which meant a week-long stay in hospital. 

Very slowly as time passed I grew stronger and my balance improved. I was determined to get going and to do what everyone else could do, but the task I faced was huge and balance was my big problem. I was very unsteady on my feet, couldn't climb stairs or steps without a handrail and couldn't walk or stand in the dark. These are simple things, but for me they were mountains. My sister took me to a dance, I was 18. The dance floor was about 3 inches below the area where patrons stood and I remember thinking, "what if someone asks me to dance, how am I going to get down that step?". That's all I remember about that night except for the music being good which was my main reason for going. I loved to watch the jive but that is one thing I could never do because if one were to let go of my hand I would fall, or if someone bumped into me they would knock me down.

As the years passed I learned to cope and adapt to my situation and with determination I could do pretty much everything. I got married and have two adult sons and live in Dublin. I love to travel and do so at any opportunity.

Elizabeth O'Donnell
March 2009