Meningitis in your words

Paul Clements's story

  • Location: England
  • Categories: Meningococcal
  • Age: Adult 25-59
  • Relationship: Self
  • Outcome: Recovery with after effects
  • After effects: Memory loss
Paul Clements

In July 2004 I collapsed at home with bacterial meningitis and went into a coma. By the time I was eventually discovered, I was barely breathing. My mother was told to make her way immediately to the hospital, if only to say goodbye. Doctors said I wouldn’t last the night.

I was 30, single, working for a travel magazine, and had spent the weekend on assignment in Warsaw. By the following Thursday, I was complaining of feeling fluey, with a raging throat and headache. I was sent home from work and must have gone straight to bed. Colleagues weren’t too concerned when I didn’t show up the next day, just a little surprised that I hadn’t bothered to phone in sick.

By Saturday afternoon, my best friend, Simon, who by now hadn’t heard from me for days, was wondering where I could be. I hadn’t answered my mobile, so he tried the landline. Pamela, my flatmate, who hadn’t seen me for days either, presumed I was out of town on another story, but said she’d check my room just in case. “He’s here,” she said after a shocked silence. “I’ll have to ring you back. He needs an ambulance.”

"I was also covered in black welts from the onset of meningococcal septicaemia"

I was sparked out on the bedroom floor and could not be roused. Judging from the mess, there had been quite a struggle: the duvet was in a knotted pile, and with a violent thrash I had knocked over a bedside lamp. The bulb, hot from being left on for several hours, if not days, was now spot-welded to my forehead.

Pamela later told me that I was so swollen, she barely recognised me. I had doubled in size – “like the Michelin Man” – and was rock hard to the touch. I was also covered in black welts from the onset of meningococcal septicaemia.

Needless to say, I don’t recall any of this – and certainly have no memory of the fortnight I spent in a coma. I’m told that on admission to Homerton University Hospital in east London, I was packed in ice to reduce the swelling, especially on my brain, and given a transfusion to remove from my bloodstream the toxins that had caused my body to balloon. I also underwent emergency surgery to prevent gangrene from taking my right arm and leg, on which my entire body weight had been resting. I needed skin grafts to patch up the lamp burn on my forehead and the surgeon’s various incisions made to cut away the ulcerated tissue.

"It dawned slowly that I couldn’t move my legs"

I only found out about my ordeal, and the doctors’ dire prognosis about the likelihood of recovery, once I’d emerged from the coma. My first voluntary movements for days before slipping back into unconsciousness were an anguished blink and a weak grab for the feeding tubes scratching at my throat.

The next day, I was able to maintain consciousness briefly now there was no pain or discomfort, not that I remember anyway: I was pumped with morphine in anticipation of a woozy slide back into the outside world.
It dawned slowly that I couldn’t move my legs. My right one was in a cast after an operation to remove the pressure sores I had acquired on the bedroom floor, while the left was bandaged up after strips of skin were lifted from it to patch up my scorched forehead (now also under wraps). I imagine it was quite a sight.
In spending so much time lying unconscious at home, I had crushed a nerve in my right forearm that meant my hand was no longer functioning; lifted out of the supportive splint, it flopped lifelessly at the wrist. I was warned it might never repair itself; the first knockback.

Over the following days, a volley of friends and family, relieved to see that I had emerged from the coma, were kept entertained, in between naps, by my morphine-induced hallucinations.

I spent almost 10 weeks in two different hospitals – which at the time felt like forever, but I’m surprised now that I recovered so quickly. The initial steps in my rehabilitation were the hardest. In the first days after the coma, being kept in anything other than the horizontal position made me so queasy, I had to close my eyes and sleep. It was days before I could think about sitting up. Standing – with the aid of, first, a walking frame, then crutches – was something attempted over the weeks. It was only when I could show nurses that I could manage a flight of stairs unaided that I was allowed to go home.

Ten years on I get the occasional mental block, especially with names. I don’t suffer from migraines or, worse, flashbacks (the memory bank of those days leading up to the coma is shot). The damaged nerves in my squashed arm did, after much care from the physios at the Royal London Hospital, eventually repair themselves and give me back the use of my hand. The movement in my wrist is restricted, though, which can make handshakes awkward, painful even, and I sometimes have to ask for help opening jam jars. A game of tennis is out of the question – I couldn’t grip the racquet – but I can still type and play the piano.

To pass me in the street, you wouldn’t know I’d ever had a brush with death. The oblong burn on my hairline is concealed with the judicious application of styling wax. The only obvious reminder of the incident is the collection of remarkable scars up my right side.

Paul Clements
June 2014