World Meningitis Day 2021: Paula's Story

23 Apr 2021
World Meningitis Day 2021: Paula's Story
Paula Donnelly, 30, had just completed her degree Sport, Exercise and Nutrition at Northumbria University when she contracted deadly bacterial meningitis in March 2012. Young, healthy and rarely unwell, Paula was hospitalised in intensive care just 24 hours after she first fell ill, with family in Northern Ireland told to fly over immediately as she might not survive.

“I’d been at a family event with an ex-partner,” said Paula. “So the following morning when I woke up feeling stiff and achy I just assumed it was because I’d slept on the sofa.”

As the day progressed Paula began to experience nausea, light sensitivity, and extreme fatigue. She said: “I wanted to be sociable with his family but I couldn’t stand the light. I just sat there with a duvet over my head.”

Paula had contracted bacterial meningitis, a serious disease which acts fast and kills 1 in 10 of those that contract it. She said: “Everyone thought it was food poisoning because I got so ill so quickly. On the train back to Newcastle I was so vacant, and my whole body was in pain. The pain was excruciating.”

Paula at her graduation from Northumbria University, with her parents.

Paula barely remembers returning to her flat in Newcastle that evening, where she immediately went to bed. “I just wanted to be left alone,” she recalls. “But luckily my boyfriend and flatmate kept checking on me, and noticed a few dark purple dots on my stomach, like a rash. They rang 111 and they sent out an ambulance. I remember hearing sirens but insisting I was fine – I didn’t want to be a burden.”
Paula was blue-lighted the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle where she was treated for meningococcal septicaemia, also known as sepsis. Her parents in Northern Ireland were told to book the next possible flight.

Paula survived and remained in hospital for a further 7 days. The disease took a profound toll on her young body.

[pictured: Paula during her stay in hospital.]
She said: “When I was discharged there was no follow up care, but I was a completely different person. I’d been so active and independent, but now I’d lost all my strength and needed help with everything – getting dressed, using the toilet, using cutlery, everything. I flew back to Northern Ireland so my parents could take care of me and they did so much for me. I still feel guilty that their lives had to be put on hold as well. I’m so grateful for everything they did for me.”

“When meningitis strikes, it affects so many people beyond the impacted individual,” says Rob Dawson, Director of Communications, Advocacy & Support at Meningitis Research Foundation (MRF). “Survivors become dependent on loved ones and can suffer from extreme guilt for years afterwards. The mental health impact of meningitis is often overlooked, which is why we are so grateful to Paula for sharing her story to raise awareness of the devastating impact of meningitis.”
World Meningitis Day 2021
World Meningitis Day 2021
Take action. Defeat meningitis.
Paula is sharing her story for the first time to mark World Meningitis Day (24th April 2021) and raise awareness of how meningitis can take hold. She said: “The consultant told me that if I’d fallen asleep that night, I would never have woken up.”
Now a Director of Layers Studio, Paula does her best to live “for now” and enjoys a healthy, active lifestyle. “Most people don’t realise their days are numbered till they reach old age,” she said. “But I found that out aged 21. It made me realise what really matters in life – my health, my friends, and my amazing family.”

[pictured: Paula with her partner, pictured in 2020.]
Cuts to research funding mean your support is needed more than ever to bring a world free from meningitis one step closer.
“Before I fell ill I didn’t even know adults could get meningitis. I thought it was just something babies got."
How much meningitis is there where you live?
The WHO have endorsed the Global Roadmap to Defeat Meningitis by 2030. We need you to encourage global governments to act on it.
Defeating Meningitis by 2030: A Global Roadmap
Defeating Meningitis by 2030: A Global Roadmap
Holly Edwards
Former Senior Communications, Advocacy & Support Officer

Hi, I'm Holly. I look after this area of work for MRF, so if there's anything more you'd like to know, get in touch.