Meningitis in your words

Sian Phillips's story

  • Location: England
  • Categories: Meningococcal
  • Age: Teenager
  • Relationship: Self
  • Outcome: Full recovery
Sian Phillips

I had meningococcal meningitis at the age of 13. I was misdiagnosed then given drugs I didn’t respond to – it’s a wonder I’m alive today apparently.

It was Christmas time and I was staying with my father in his hotel. This always meant disco dances which we became quite famous for in the rural area of Brecon in South Wales. And I was always found on the dance floor – my Dad would have to hunt me down to get me to go to bed. But this was Christmas time so I was allowed to stay up late.  However I had a blinding headache and took myself off to bed at 10pm which was unheard of. I don’t think I told anyone – it was always so busy I didn’t want to bother anyone.

"I slipped into a coma for four days"

I felt sick throughout the night and remember feeling so weak I literally crawled to the loo.  I didn’t wake my dad up because he had his girlfriend staying.  I wanted to wait until my Mum was coming for Sunday lunch the next day.  So the first anyone knew I was ill was when I called my Mum asking her to come early. I remember having jelly because I wasn’t able to keep anything down. That’s about the last I remember, so the rest is what my family have told me.

My best friend had glandular fever so they thought maybe I had it too – the symptoms of meningitis were not so well publicised then. After two days of me throwing up they called the doctor out. As it was Christmas week it was a locum who said I had gastroenteritis and gave me an injection to stop me being sick.  Meanwhile I got weaker and then had hallucinations. Apparently I saw my best friend in my bedroom holding up her new dress she’d got for Christmas – but she was ill at home. I couldn’t stand the light so my family had to stay in darkness.

The next day my Mum rang my doctor and explained everything that was happening and he sent the doctor on call out to me. He did the test of trying to get me to touch my chin to my chest which I couldn’t, plus I had a small rash which hadn’t been noticeable before.  He immediately diagnosed that I had meningitis and I was to be taken by ambulance to Neville Hall in Abergavenny. I have snippets of memory here – going down the corridor of the hotel on the stretcher and my grandfather close to tears saying I’d be ok, then looking out the back of the speeding ambulance to see my Dad driving his mustard-coloured Volvo behind keeping up. Mum said she’d never known him to drive so fast.

I was put on the isolation ward and everyone had to mask and gown up to see me.  Apparently there was a woman admitted the same time as me with meningitis – turned out she’d had her Christmas party at our hotel and I would have served her at some point, so we think something was passed then for us to both to catch it.  She reacted to the drugs they gave her but I didn’t and I slipped into a coma for four days. Finally I responded to whatever changes they made and I woke up, thankfully without any problems. I was in hospital for a week and then recuperating at home for three months before I could go back to school. I’d like to thank my school friends, especially Sue Watkins who visited me constantly with the school notes so I could photocopy them and keep up.

Ringing my Mum to remind me of some of the above she talked about when she also had meningitis at the age of eight just before the Second World War.  Mum became ill at her grandmother’s and remembers that the pink roses on the wallpaper were moving. She had her first ride in a car but it was on the way to the hospital. They didn’t know what was wrong with her so she was moved to the local isolation hospital to investigate, and she was kept for over a week whilst she recovered.  Then Mum was transferred to the normal hospital where she recuperated for three weeks.

She remembers playing with the matron’s dog, Rags, in the field behind the hospital. I know where I get my love of dogs from.  Mum also remembers her Dad lifting her younger brother Dessie up to the window so they could see each other as he was too young to be allowed in. When I was in hospital, my brother Alan lifted my baby nephew, Edward, up to the door window so I could see him as I was in isolation and children not allowed in. At 6’4? Edward is tall enough now!

So from 1939 to 1980 and now 2010, meningitis is still not easily recognised. My brothers know that whenever they used to tell me one of their children had a headache I’d run through the other symptoms to look out for even though they of course know them well from experience.

Sian Phillips
September 2010