Meningitis in your words

Helen Smith's story

  • Location: England
  • Categories: Meningococcal
  • Age: Young Adult 20-25
  • Relationship: Self
  • Outcome: Recovery with after effects
  • After effects: Amputations
Helen Smith

It had been the usual happy family Christmas at my aunty and uncle's house in Herefordshire. I was 22 and home for the Christmas holidays after just starting a PhD at Hammersmith Hospital in London. 

On Boxing Day I'd woken with a sore throat but had felt well enough to join the rest of my family on a long country walk. By the evening I thought I had the flu and went to bed early. At about 1am I woke up feeling really ill with the most excruciating pains in my arms, legs and stomach. I was also suffering from vomiting and diarrhoea and was shaking violently. My mum was very worried about me and decided to call for a GP. The GP was very reluctant to come out insisting that it was only flu and recommending I take paracetamol. He did however show up about an hour later after having to visit someone else who was ill nearby. He looked at my throat claimed his original diagnosis over the phone was right and left. 

The next morning I did feel a bit better and travelled back to Cambridge where my parents lived. We had to stop periodically for me to be sick and as soon as we arrived I went straight to bed. I had noticed that my face was covered in little black spots which looked like blood blisters, but thought nothing of it. As I continued to get sicker and sicker my mum called another doctor. This doctor thought I had food poisoning and gave me a pain-killing injection. She left saying call again in four hours if I was no better. I began to slip in and out of consciousness and so my mum called yet another doctor. This time he recognised my symptoms as meningococcal septicaemia and told my mum to dial 999. The last time I walked with my own two legs was when I walked onto that ambulance on the 27th December 1997. 

"I awoke from my coma but the cost of survival had been great."

On arrival at the hospital I was greeted by two nurses but in minutes this had turned into a full-scale emergency and I was surrounded by medics doing their best to keep me alive. Everything in my body shut down: my breathing failed, my kidneys failed and my heart needed stronger and stronger drugs to maintain any blood pressure. I turned black from head to toe and was given very little chance of survival - my poor family were told to expect the worst. However, three weeks later I awoke from my coma but the cost of survival had been great. To save my life doctors had amputated both my legs and I was told both my hands would have to be amputated too. 

I was completely and utterly devastated. Never again would I play the piano or run or go back to my PhD. My life as I had known it was gone forever.

But 11 years later I'm fit and well.  I have new arms and legs I can walk and run with. I live with my partner and I have a dog, I can write, draw, type, drive, cook and even ski and I work full time for the charity Mobilise who campaign on behalf of disabled motorists. 

Sometimes I get sad about what happened to me and I can't help but wonder what the outcome would have been if a correct diagnosis was made immediately.  But I try not to dwell on the past as it won't change anything. Instead I look to the future and my family and I will always support the MRF in their endeavour to find a cure for this terrible disease.

Helen Smith
March 2009