TV presenter Seema Jaswal contracted meningitis at the age of 16, while she was studying for her A-Levels. After initially assuming she was coming down with a cold, Seema’s condition rapidly deteriorated - a diagnosis of meningitis was confirmed and she fell into a coma. However, thanks to her mother recognising the signs of meningitis and alerting doctors to her suspicions, Seema was able to make a full recovery. She is now a committed advocate for raising awareness of meningitis.
I was 16 years old and was doing everything that life was throwing at me – A-Levels, playing every sport you can imagine, and some part-time work in a café to save up to go to Mexico on my gap year. I was busy busy busy!
Early warning signs
It was one day after finishing my shift in the café that I came home with a really bad headache. I didn’t feel ill very often, and I never got headaches of that severity, so that wasn’t normal for me – but I just thought, ‘I’ve had a busy day, that’s probably what it is.’
When I got home, I lay on the couch and my mum and dad both said I ‘didn’t look too great’ but I told them I simply thought I’d come down with a cold. I went to bed and when my mum came into my room to check on me, she turned on the light and I said, “Oh mum, can you please turn that light off? It’s really bright.” And that was the first time I think the alarm bells rang for my mum.
Throughout the course of the night, I got progressively worse. My mum called the doctor, who came over and suggested that I had a bad cold. He gave us paracetamol which I took, and then after he’d left, I threw it up. I then fell into a bit of a state where I don’t even remember what was going on.
Fortunately, my mum had a book about health and illnesses. She recognised straight away that these signs were looking very much like meningitis, particularly because of the issue with light and the headache – these are two big symptoms.
By this point, I wasn’t really responding, and my mum was very worried. She called an ambulance, and the paramedics came to pick me up from my room - I don’t remember anything after that. My mum told me that they had to drag me to the ambulance, suspecting that I had been out partying and taking drugs, which wasn’t the case.
I was taken to hospital, by which point I’d fallen into a coma. As you can imagine, my mum and dad were petrified. A few hours later, I woke up during a lumbar puncture. This is a process that involves draining fluid from the spine and from that, we came to know that I had bacterial meningitis, but it was actually my mum that spotted it first. She just knew something wasn’t right. I’m so glad, and very grateful, that she was able to make that call and relayed her suspicions to the paramedics.
I stayed in hospital for 10 days. Being a teenager, I did not want to stay in hospital! I wanted to get back to my normal self – to just go and enjoy life and go back to normality, because I hated being there. However, I had lost a lot of weight and was weak, so it took a bit of time to recover and get back to my normal self. At the time, doctors told me that because I did so much sport and my body was physically strong, I was able to come through it relatively quickly – I always feel quite connected to sport because of that.
The road to recovery
I slowly started getting back into things and was able to return to college a few weeks later. I was due to sit my AS levels, but I wasn’t able to finish them as I couldn’t study for, or sit the exams. Instead, I ended up doing my AS levels and A-Levels in one year. It was quite hard, but I didn’t want to take an extra year to do my exams – I wanted to take that year out. I had it all set in my head of what I wanted to do.
Recovery did take time and it took me a while to get my strength back. It was quite scary afterwards – I remember that every time I felt something like a headache, or had something that didn’t feel quite right, it would make me question whether it was meningitis coming back or not.
I don’t feel that way about myself now, but I am very aware of other people. If someone tells me they have a bad headache, I start asking them about the light, or their neck etc. It’s like I feel responsible, because of what I’ve been through, and I know how easy it is to just mistake meningitis for something else. Also, now I’m a mum, my radar is on. If I spot a rash or anything like that, I’m a little sensitive, for sure.
There have been so many stories that I’ve read about young kids, people who have not been able to come through meningitis, or those who have come through it and lost a limb, or something else that they have had to live with – it’s changed their lives. Through my work with meningitis charities, I have met with other meningitis sufferers, and it just makes me so grateful that I was able to come through unscathed. Especially as, with meningitis B, quite often you don’t get out of it lightly.
I was incredibly fortunate that I was able to bounce back to normality and what I was doing before, and have had no lasting effects. Where I grew up, across from my house was a guy who lived on his own and had carers coming over every day. This was because he had had meningitis and been left blind because of it. So he was a constant reminder for me that meningitis hadn’t stopped or hindered me from doing anything and that I am so lucky to be able to live a life with out any limiting or long lasting problems. I am so grateful to the wonderful Doctors and Nurses at Kingston Hospital who saved my life, looked after me, and helped me back to full health.