Meningitis in your words

Stephen Douglas's story

  • Location: Northern Ireland
  • Categories: Bacterial meningitis
  • Age: Teenager
  • Relationship: Parent
  • Outcome: Full recovery
Stephen Douglas

In July of 2002 my son Stephen aged 17 became very ill. 

One evening Stephen announced that he was feeling a bit under the weather; he had a bad cough and seemed a bit “chesty”. I reassured Stephen that if he was still feeling unwell the next day, he would need to visit a doctor. 

"However when I saw Stephen, I realised something terrible was happening to him."

About an hour later, Lily (Stephen’s Mam) came into the bedroom to tell me that Stephen was not looking too well and asked me if I would mind checking him out. I stepped out of bed reluctantly and went down stairs to where he was sitting. However when I saw Stephen, I realised something terrible was happening to him. His colour was like chalk; he had just vomited and was shaking profusely. I rang the hospital urgently and told them that I thought my son had meningitis and that I was bringing him to the hospital by car immediately. When we arrived at the Accident and Emergency department Stephen was seen by a doctor instantly. As I entered the ward I saw a doctor leaving Stephen’s cubicle. I asked her how my son was; she said because he had suspected meningitis the registrar (the senior doctor) would be in to examine him soon.

The registrar arrived and asked Stephen how he was feeling and he replied that he was feeling a lot better. The registrar told me that Stephen had a high temperature and his blood cell count was slightly abnormal but there was nothing to be worried about and the decision was to send him home. I emphatically disagreed with the doctor and I told her that in my opinion, Stephen had many of the meningitis symptoms which prompted me to bring him to the hospital urgently. The registrar said that she would source a second opinion. When the second registrar arrived he concurred with the first registrar, but again I disagreed. I told both of them that I believed my son Stephen had meningitis and if not meningitis, he might have Weil’s disease. They asked why I would think he had Weil’s disease and I explained that Stephen and I had played golf the previous evening and while Stephen was retrieving a golf ball from bushes, he felt a prick in his leg, the same leg that he was having problems straightening. The second registrar decided to admit Stephen purely because he had a high temperature and a stiff leg. As the first registrar was leaving, she turned to “reassure” me by saying “don’t worry” I’m sure he only has a virus”. 

At 5am on Friday morning Stephen told me that he was feeling a lot better and said I should go home and rest. The doctor agreed saying that in his opinion, Stephen only had a virus and that I should go home. He told me that he would telephone me, if there was any change.

At 8 am on Friday morning, we received a call from a doctor at the hospital to say that Stephen appeared to be much better. He explained that Stephen had vomited after his breakfast, but said that it was nothing to be worried about. He also told us Stephen was now able to straighten his leg. I asked him whether Stephen had any meningitis symptoms and he replied that although he did not believe Stephen had meningitis, but they were going to treat him for meningitis as a precautionary measure. The doctor informed us Stephen would have to stay in hospital for a minimum of ten days as this was the length of time necessary to give the full treatment. The doctor reassured us that there really was no urgency and to take our time and have our breakfast before coming into the hospital.

At 8.30 am we received another telephone call from the hospital asking us to come to the hospital immediately as Stephen had lapsed into a coma. I grabbed the car keys and Lily and I rushed to the hospital. Lily jumped out of the car and ran into the hospital. I parked the car and followed her. As I walked into the hospital a nurse came running up the corridor asking if I was Mr Douglas, I replied that I was. She beckoned me to come quickly. When we came to the side room Lily was sitting there with the doctor. He had his head in his hands while he was speaking. I stopped the doctor from talking and asked him if Stephen was still alive, and if so where was he [looking at the doctor’s body language I feared the worst,] he replied that he was, but that it was not looking good. He informed us that Stephen was in the intensive care unit and that the blood results had come back and they confirmed that Stephen had meningococcal meningitis and septicaemia.

"He explained that the prognosis was not looking good for Stephen and that he had only a 50/50 chance of surviving."

Sometime later a consultant came to speak to us. I asked him to be candid and to tell us the worst-case scenario. He explained that the prognosis was not looking good for Stephen and that he had only a 50/50 chance of surviving. If he did survive he would more than likely have brain damage and possibly would require amputation of some of his limbs.

As the day progressed, Stephen’s condition deteriorated and it was obvious by the expression on the doctors’ faces, that they thought there was little hope of a recovery. In accordance with hospital policy, Stephen was only allowed two visitors at any one time and those had to be from the immediate family. 

It was 10pm and time for the doctor who had been looking after Stephen to change shift. He told us that the doctor, who was taking over his shift, was one of the best doctor’s in the hospital. Three day’s had now passed since Stephens admission. A doctor walked out of the Intensive Care Unit and asked me to read a particular pamphlet, concerning a treatment which was only at the trial stages. She enquired if we would consider trying the treatment and I replied that that we were desperate and would try anything to save Stephen’s life. 

The only problem with the treatment was that, if by some miracle Stephen was to survive, there was a very high risk of him contacting the HIV Virus or Hepatitis C at a later date. This was because the treatment, a protein C blood extract, had not been fully approved and therefore to my understanding, there was the possibility of a deficit in quality control during the screening process to eliminate viruses and bacteria.

As Saturday morning arrived, Stephen’s condition was still the same and he remained in a coma. Later that evening Lily and I went to 7.30pm Mass in the hospital. On leaving the Chapel we noticed Stephen’s consultant and a new doctor who had taken over from the previous registrar, outside the door and standing to our left. The consultant called Lily and me aside saying that he had been urgently called to the hospital. As the consultant spoke, I was alarmed to see the expression on Lily’s face as the blood appeared to drain from her countenance. The consultant paused and said quietly that the news was good. There had been a change in Stephen’s condition. Stephen was responding well to the new treatment and that he could see no reason why he should not make a full recovery and told us to go home and get some sleep. 

As the dawn broke on Sunday morning we were anxious to go to the hospital. When we arrived at the Intensive Care Unit I hurriedly walked over to Stephen’s bed and sat down on a chair next to his bed. I enquired of the nurse how Stephen was progressing as I had noticed that the tube (endotracheal tube) had been removed from his mouth. The nurse smiled in a very caring way “Ask Stephen how he is feeling” she said. I looked at my son tenderly and whispered gently, “Hello Stephen it’s Dad”. With that, Stephen moved his face slowly and hoarsely mumbled, “How ye Dad?”. 

Over the next two weeks, Stephen gained strength daily. Within two days he was able to step out of bed and even though he had lost a lot of weight, he appeared to maintain his strength. By the end of the first week Stephen was transferred from the Intensive Care Unit to one of the general wards. As the days progressed, I would take him from the ward in a wheelchair and wheel him around the hospital grounds. Within a week, he was stepping out of the wheelchair and taking short walks. 

Stephen remained in hospital for two weeks. The nurses told us that they were amazed at the manner and speed in which Stephen had recovered. Within a week, Stephen was able to walk on his own. He had made a complete recovery and one year later, Stephen received confirmation that he did not have any of the predicted possible side effects from the new treatment. He remained perfectly clear of being vulnerable to the HIV virus and Hepatitis C.

Michael Douglas
May 2015