Meningitis in your words

Leanne Harden West's story

  • Location: USA
  • Categories: Viral
  • Age: Young Adult 20-25
  • Relationship: Self
  • Outcome: Full recovery
Leanne Harden West

I’ve had two bouts with viral meningitis. In October 1992 I was a 23 year old single mother. I was awoken one morning feeling as though someone had hit me in the head with a hammer. I fell to the floor When I finally got up I could barely walk. I could not turn my head to either side and my head was pounding. I got the girls up and drove them to daycare. I was crying the whole way. I couldn’t turn my head and the sun hurt my eyes. I don’t know how I made it.

At the daycare it was apparently obvious that I was very ill so another parent drove me to the ER where I was told I had a migraine headache, given a shot of Demerol, and sent home. My mother took me home, but had to go back to work. I slept briefly, but then awoke again with even worse pain. I was vomiting, unable to stand, and sobbing. I had no phone, so I tried to crawl to the front door to get help. I truly thought I was dying. When my mother came back several hours later, I was on the floor writhing in pain and crying. She took me back to the ER where I waited 4 or 5 hours to see a doctor. A lumbar puncture was performed and meningitis was confirmed. They showed me the vial and it looked milky. He explained to me that it should be clear. 

"I truly thought I was dying"

I was treated for bacterial meningitis as a precaution and given morphine for pain. The first couple of days in the hospital are a blur, but I do remember wanting the room dark and quiet. Even with the morphine, I was still in unbelievable pain. On the third day, the pain left me just as quickly as it had hit me. I was weaned off the morphine, and sent home the next day.

Four years later, in July 1996 at age 27, I developed an awful case of painful mouth ulcers. At work I started to have a terrible headache, sensitivity to light, and neck stiffness. I feared meningitis, but kept working. The symptoms got worse so after work I drove myself to the ER and called someone to watch my girls in the waiting room. A lumbar puncture confirmed meningitis. Again I was treated for bacterial meningitis as a precaution, and given morphine and Demerol for pain. But this time they held me under quarantine. The pain the second time wasn’t quite as bad as the first time, but it was still excruciating. As with the first time, on the third day I was better, and was sent home on the fourth day.

The only theory I have about why I got meningitis is that maybe it was due to the chicken pox virus (both of my girls had just recovered from the virus in October 1992) and the mouth ulcers the second time (caused by a similar herpes-type virus). Thankfully, I’ve now gone 18 years without a recurrence.

Interestingly, after my first illness I developed severe depression and for four years I was depressed and suicidal. But after my second illness, my depression improved. Some swear that the meningitis did something to my brain chemistry to cause my depression, and then to alleviate it. Who knows?!

I joined the Foundation to learn more about meningitis and see stories from other survivors. I sympathize with anyone who has dealt with disease – regardless of the type and cause – and especially with those who suffer long-lasting problems as a result.

Leanne Harden West
April 2014