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Young Mum Zara, 29, warns of deadly meningitis: “It’s a miracle I survived”

01 Feb 2021
Young Mum Zara, 29, warns of deadly meningitis: “It’s a miracle I survived”
Zara McCarthy, 29, is raising awareness of meningitis, and the traumatic after effects that it causes, to warn people of an expected rise in cases in winter, after contracting the disease herself in December 2019. Every year, the UK sees a dramatic rise in cases of meningitis in the winter months.

Zara, who works in Project Management from Barrow-in-Furness, explains how the day before she was diagnosed she felt ‘absolutely fine’. Only after suffering from ‘really, really cold shivers’ did Zara return home from work, where she was delusional in her sleep, sore to touch and suffering from a fever.
The following morning, her condition had rapidly deteriorated. Zara rang the GP and was taken to Furness General Hospital, where she remembers her stomach, arms and legs swollen and going purple. She said: ‘The last thing I remember is going for a CT scan, where they told me I was very poorly and would need to be put to sleep.’

Zara was treated for pneumococcal meningitis and sepsis, causing the failure of her organs. She remained in an induced coma for 8 days.

Zara’s son, George, was only 1-year-old at the time. She said: ‘I didn’t see him until 2 days after I’d woken up. My partner and family tried to keep everything as normal as possible for him, but it was really hard. They really didn’t know if I would pull through.’
Meningitis kills around 1 in 10, and leaves more than 1 in 5 with life changing after-effects, such as brain injury, deafness or, where sepsis also occurs, amputations. It can happen to anyone of any age, at any time, but winter is the peak season for the disease in the UK.

"I don’t think people understand how it affects you mentally. I have panic attacks, I have really bad health anxiety, I think I’m going to die every day."

Fortunately, Zara survived, but has continued to suffer severe after effects such as body scarring, memory loss, noise sensitivity, fatigue, nerve damage, PTSD and more. She said: ‘I don’t think people understand how it affects you mentally. I have panic attacks, I have really bad health anxiety, I think I’m going to die every day. But because I survived and didn’t lose any limbs, people expect me to be the same as I was before.’

The experience has also deeply affected her family. Zara said: ‘My partner, Chris has been amazing, and so have my family and friends. I’m eternally grateful to all the hospital staff involved, especially Dr Suresh and the ICU team. Everyone was just brilliant.’
Rob Dawson, Director of Support at MRF, said: ‘When meningitis strikes, it affects the whole family. For over 30 years we have been supporting people like Zara and her loved ones through some of the darkest moments of their lives. We are very grateful to Zara for bravely sharing her story and helping raise awareness of just how difficult life after meningitis can be.

‘At this time of the year, it is vitally important for people to know the symptoms, and how they differ from COVID. The first symptoms are usually fever, vomiting, headache and feeling unwell. Limb pain, pale skin, and cold hands and feet often appear earlier than well-known the rash, neck stiffness, dislike of bright lights and confusion. Spotting it early is key for effective rapid treatment.’

Pictured: (L) Scarring on Zara's leg caused by meningitis and septicaemia. (R) The so-called "meningitis rash" on Zara's arm.

Zara is now on the road to recovery, but her life has been changed forever by meningitis.
‘I’ve been amazingly lucky to survive,’ she said. ‘I didn’t get to say goodbye to my son, so I appreciate every day with him. When he grows up, I might tell him the scarring was from a shark attack!’

‘I wanted to tell this story to raise awareness of meningitis. Even if it helps just one person, then it will have been enough.’


If you have been affected by Zara's story, or you have questions and concerns about meningitis, our Support Service can help. Please call 080 8800 3344 (UK) or email helpline@meningitis.org for more information.
The symptoms of meningitis
The symptoms of meningitis
Meningitis and septicaemia can kill in hours - know the symptoms.
You don’t need to face meningitis and sepsis alone
Coping with the death of someone important in your life.

Detailed information about the after effects of meningitis

Mike Davies contracted bacterial meningitis in 2017. This is his story.
Media contact
Holly Edwards - Communications Manager
Tel: 07875 498 047
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