My Experience of Bacterial Meningitis

I'd moved to a rented flat in Acton, West London, with my partner David in September 1996. We intended to sell our house in Southampton as quickly as possible and then buy a property in London.

Jan. 20th 1997 we received a cash offer on the house on the condition that we completed by the end of the month - in ten days time! At the same time I developed a mild headache which wouldn't go away. I tried everything to get rid of it: early nights, exercise, painkillers - by Thursday Jan. 22nd I told my colleagues at work that if I still had the headache the next day, I wouldn't come in to work. I felt a bit guilty saying I'd miss work for only a headache, but what else could I do?

Dave went off for his night shift and I went to bed without eating anything. At midnight I woke up, ran to the toilet and threw up. I'm used to being sick - before I was diagnosed with Coeliac disease (being allergic to gluten) I used to throw up regularly - but this vomit was different: bright orange and violent. I rang Dave (we both worked for the same company) and asked him to e-mail my colleagues saying I would definitely not be in on Friday. We thought it might be food poisoning, or maybe I'd eaten some gluten accidentally. I went back to bed.

I was sick every hour throughout the night. Even when I had no food left, the orange stuff kept coming. When Dave came back from work at 8 am he checked me out. I seemed to be getting over whatever it was and ready for some rest. We both fell asleep.

Mid-morning I looked at myself in a mirror. I had spots all over my torso. I showed them to Dave and he said it looked like measles. If it was, we'd have to cancel our holiday abroad in a couple of weeks' time - which really cheered me up.

By lunch time all my muscles ached and Dave started to ring doctors' surgeries in earnest. The problem was, because we were living in a temporary, rented flat we couldn't guarantee being in the same post-code district for three months, so no surgery would let us register. Eventually Dave rang the NHS helpline and they told him to call our nearest surgery and say it was "immediate and necessary treatment". Dave did this, got an answer phone telling him to ring back mid-afternoon, and we eventually got an appointment for 5.30pm.

The surgery was only five minutes walk away, but it was the most painful car journey of my life. Every street light hurt my eyes, and every bump in the road sent pain through my shoulders and back. I hobbled into the surgery and they let me sit in a dark room to wait. I spent another thirty minutes throwing up until the doctor arrived.

By this time I couldn't lift my head so I still have no idea what that GP looked like. After examining me he said: "I can't rule out meningitis. I'm going to give you a shot of penicillin and call an ambulance." I felt relief that something was being done to cure me at last. However, the GP was a locum and the only other member of staff on duty that night was a temp receptionist, and neither of them knew where the penicillin was kept! Dave had to help them look for it, and then I was given a HUGE injection.

At 6.30 the paramedics arrived and drove Dave and me to the Hammersmith hospital, lights and sirens blazing. I still had my eyes closed, but heard someone say: "He looks very shut down".

I can only remember incidents at the Hammersmith: being banged through the doors of the hospital; Dave asking me for my parents' phone number and me giving him a string of useless digits; telling Dave that I wanted the house sale to go ahead; and having my rash scraped for tests.

A combination of a brain scan and the slide specimen confirmed that I had bacterial meningitis. Most people collapse from this within two to twelve hours. A few last for twenty four. I'd had the full twenty four, and had only seen a doctor at the last possible moment. The diagnosis was so clear I was able to avoid a lumbar puncture, which I'm told can be worse to recover from than what you went in for.

I was rushed to theatre, fitted with a central line and put on a life support machine. Someone took Dave to one side and explained that I'd stopped breathing and at this late stage not many people survive bacterial meningitis. There was no bed free in the intensive care unit at the Hammersmith, so I was taken by ambulance to the Chelsea and Westminster. Dave was not allowed to join me in the ambulance, in case they needed to do anything to me on the way which he "might find distressing".

Dave was stranded, our car was back at the doctor's surgery. He had no money with him, a phone number for my parents which didn't work and my clothes in a bag. The hospital managed to connect him to the correct number and order him a taxi but it didn't arrive for an hour. Eventually, he hailed one outside - still with no money.

I was on life support all weekend. Dave took the night shifts, my parents took the days. On Saturday (less than 12 hours after I'd lost consciousness) Dave drove down to Southampton to oversee the stripping of our house, stopping every hour to phone the hospital. Fortunately I'd secretly arranged for all our friends in Hampshire to turn up and help us move. They took one look at Dave and sent him straight back up to London while they sorted the house out for us.

(Dave said later that if anything had happened to me while he was down in Southampton that day - even though he was only away for a few hours - he would never have forgiven himself.)

The next thing I remember is hearing my mum say: "Squeeze my hand, John", which I thought was a bit weird as it was such a simple thing to do. A bit later I became aware that there was a mass of plastic above my face. I tried to pull it away, only to find that my face came with it, and a woman yelled: "Don't do that John! You need that to help you!"

I know at one point Dave put his face close to mine, and I licked his nose. He nearly cried as it was a sign that I didn't have brain damage. Well, no more than before.

My first conversation went along the lines:

"Hello John, do you know where you are?"

"Yes, It's Friday night and I'm at the Hammersmith."

"No, you're in the Chelsea and Westminster, and it's Monday."

My next line: "Monday? I've got to go to work!"

Boy, was I ill.

Later on Monday I was transferred to a general ward, but because I still had photo-phobia I was given my own private, darkened room with TV and en-suite bathroom. The nurses loved me as I was the only person under 70 on their ward, and told me that I should "keep" the photo-phobia for as long as possible if I wanted to retain my own room. I took their advice.

I stayed in the general ward for a week while I was on the drip. I'd lost 30 lbs in weight, but as everyone kept telling me, if I'd died I would have lost 170 lbs, so I was lucky. The consultant came round but the conversation was not very productive. I begged for advice on what my recovery might be like, but was told that because meningitis affects each person differently there was no "general pattern of recovery".

After being sent home I was on oral antibiotics for another two weeks, (which gave me the added bonus of having thick, bright orange urine), after which time I was able to give my walking sticks back to the hospital. After three more months I was back at work. After a year I'd put back all the weight I'd lost. I'm still clumsier than I was, and when I'm tired I use the wrong words. But I do intend to make a full recovery and tell other people that it is possible to survive.

For a disease that's meant to be rare I have found that everyone seems to know someone, who knows someone who's had meningitis. The crazy thing is that if diagnosed quick enough, bacterial meningitis can be treated with antibiotics. Don't leave it as late as I did, I was lucky to pull through. Everyone's symptoms are different, but the main thing to look out for is a quickly developing stiff neck along with any of the following: tiredness, headaches, vomiting, fever, light hurting your eyes, rash, impairment of consciousness and occasionally seizures. I know I've just described a hangover for most people, but you also feel bloody ill with meningitis, believe me.

There is more information on The National Meningitis Trust site's website. If in doubt call your local doctor and describe the symptoms. If you can't get through call a hospital and ask for advice. Quoting the words "immediate and necessary treatment" should guarantee that you're seen by any doctor, regardless of where you're registered.

Copyright © John Pendal 1999. All Rights Reserved.
You are welcome to link to this page but text must not be reprinted without permission from the author.

Click here to go to my WRITING page