Meningitis in your words

Helen Shaw's story

  • Location: England
  • Categories: Meningococcal
  • Age: Teenager
  • Relationship: Self
  • Outcome: Recovery with after effects
  • After effects: Memory loss
Helen Shaw

I had just finished my A-level exams, June 1993, and was in the middle of a shift on the checkout at Tesco on a Saturday evening. I suddenly couldn't see the person I was serving, and felt very faint, so I asked the supervisor if I could have a quick break. It was so unlike me to be ill, that they 'phoned my parents and my dad came to pick me up.

I remember being very sick and having terrible pains in my head and couldn't tolerate light. I also had a lot of joint stiffness and a rash on my arms. The emergency doctor was called on the Sunday morning and he wasn't sure what it was, but suspected meningitis and gave me a shot of penicillin. I think that's what saved my life.

I don't remember anything after that point, although I'm told that we got an ambulance to the hospital, I had a lumbar puncture and apparently put up a fight when they tried to pick the rash on my arm to get a sample of the skin!

"I worried any time that I was mildly ill that I was going to die"

When I woke up, I was attached to various drips and surrounded by some very concerned faces. I wasn't told what was wrong with me to start with, just that I'd been very poorly and was on the drips to make me better. My mum recalls feeling very relieved that I could answer questions about friends, family and everyday things. I think they feared I could have suffered brain damage.

I was in isolation for about three days, and had horrendous nightmares as a result of the drugs I was on. I then went onto a normal ward and hated it as it was so very loud. I do suffer a sensitivity to bright lights and loud noise to this day.

When I was finally told what was wrong – meningococcal B with septicaemia – my first thought was 'but people die from that'. Fortunately I hadn't, but still had a long climb to emotional and physical health.

Due to the illness and my weakened state, I wasn't able to take up my university place that year, which made me feel very left out as all my friends had gone away. I also felt that I wasn't going to live very long, and was very worried any time that I was mildly ill that I was going to die. I honestly didn't expect to live over the age of 25.

I did! I went to University, lived in France and Cyprus, trained as a teacher and set up a language business, which I run now. I go to dance class four nights a week and am fit and healthy. I do still suffer from residual headaches, and have lost a lot of childhood memories, which is very sad. Although it's a long time in the past, meningitis has shaped my life, for good and for bad, it influenced the path I took in life.

Surviving an illness like meningitis is lots of mixed emotions: happiness, frustration, confusion, sadness. I decided to become a befriender for Meningitis Research Foundation as they were very supportive during the early months of my recovery and I wanted to help others who had had a similar experience.

Helen Shaw
April 2011