Meningitis in your words

John Kelly's story

  • Location: England
  • Categories: Bacterial meningitis
  • Age: Baby 0-1
  • Relationship: Child
  • Outcome: Bereavement
John Kelly

12 noon, Friday 28th December 1979. A cold winter’s day showing definite signs of snow. I lifted my eight month old son John for his midday meal. He was difficult to awaken and very drowsy, tired and lethargic. I decided to put him back to bed as I thought the rest would help him.

I checked on him an hour or so later and he was still very tired. Another hour or two passed and eventually he drank a bottle of milk I had prepared earlier that morning as usual.

The short, dark winter evening had now closed in and the lights were on in the house and we all settled by the fire for the night. Little did my family and I know what lay ahead, and that before day-break our lives were about to change forever.

About 8pm John vomited, had diarrhoeic nappies and the odd rashy spot appeared on his head. I immediately thought "measles" and that he’d be sick until they’d all came out on him. I wasn’t worried and I kept saying "tomorrow I’ll take him to the doctor". NOW I never say "put off until tomorrow what you can do today" because tomorrow could be too late. Hindsight is a great thing. Everything happened for a reason the way it was meant to happen.

"During the night a rash had come out all over John’s body. He was obviously in pain as he had a very high pitched moaning cry and was very unwell."

During the night a rash had come out all over John’s body. He was obviously in pain as he had a very high pitched moaning cry and was very unwell. At 3am his dad and I decided to get the doctor. A locum arrived at 5.30am but by this time John had already passed away. The doctor told us in his opinion death was due to a bacteria that caused meningitis and blood poisoning (septicaemia), and that in turn had caused a brain haemorrhage. He advised a post mortem to be carried out which was done the following day and the results were exactly as he had told us.

He had been a full term, healthy baby weighing 7lbs 6 and a half ounces at birth. He had had the odd sniffle or two but nothing serious until that fateful day. He became unwell, a rash appeared within hours from first noticing him out of sorts. As this disease advances rapidly it is vital to know the early signs and symptoms and act quickly in order to save lives.

Just a few days earlier, on Christmas day, my dad had said after the dinner, "That’s Christmas over, God knows who will be alive next year." He was probably thinking of himself. He was 71. Four days later John was sitting on my mum’s knees, very unwell and she looked at him and said "John are you going to die?" He had been christened on the 29th April and at 4.20am on the 29th December meningitis stole him from us forever. Our baby was dead! His older sister couldn’t understand why she no longer had a baby brother to love and play toys with that Santa had brought to them just days ago.

Our neighbours and friends were great and rallied round and helped our family in every way possible at this heart breaking time. They asked us "what can we say?” and “what can we do?” Words mean nothing but their presence, concerns and support meant everything to us on those short, dark wintery days at the end of one year and the beginning of the next, a year that John never lived to see.

"Time moved on and three children were born in the years that followed but there was always one child missing from all occasions"

Time moved on and three children were born in the years that followed but there was always one child missing from all occasions: christenings; first communions; confirmations; birthdays etc. There is always an empty space that will never be replaced.

My main aim in sharing this personal story is to raise awareness of meningitis and septicaemia. I would say to all families especially those of you who have babies to be extremely vigilant at this time of year because it can and it does kill within hours. In our case it was 16 hours from noticing John unwell until he passed away. Babies can’t tell you where they have a pain or how they feel. However, nobody is exempt from getting meningitis and it can and does leave scars for life to those who survive the devastating disease that it is.

I hope by writing and sharing my story with you all that it spares you and others the pain, the suffering, the loneliness, and the questions that my family and I experienced in its aftermath. If it can help one person or prevent one death then, for me, John’s death would be that little bit less painful. Always be on the side of caution! It could mean the difference between life and death.

I would like to apologise to anyone who has found this upsetting to read. That is not the intention, but rather to warn families of the dangers of meningitis, and also to let you know that there is help available on the Meningitis Research Foundation freefone helpline, and your concerns will be dealt with in the strictest of confidence.

Meningitis Research Foundation’s vision is a world free from meningitis and septicaemia. For those, like John, who left this world long, long before their time, they were denied that chance. My greatest wish for others is that one day that vision will come through.

Rosemary Kelly
November 2016