14 January 2000

Meningitis strikes fear in the family

OUR 15-year-old son is due to have the new meningitis "C" vaccine shortly and not a moment too soon; to have a child down with meningococcal septicaemia is a humbling experience.

We were, I suppose, a classical case. Our 19-year-old first born off to university, bright eyed and bushy tailed, a village bred boy, a bit apprehensive, a bit naive, but self assured. A nice lad just treading the first foothills of manhood. Six weeks into his agriculture degree course, and all was well. He had made many friends, survived a riotous initiation from the second years, driven home to see us one weekend – and then the phone call.

Ten-thirty one Thursday morning, something that happens always to other people: "This is Dr Somebodys surgery of Newport". Well we run a B&B business and my first thought was Newport in Wales, someone wants a room. But as I reached for the booking calendar other words filtered through, words that make the world stand still and your blood chill – Newport Shropshire – are you the father of James Smith? Meningitis – ambulance on its way – intensive care – Princess Royal Hospital.

&#42 Treated immediately

"He is here" said the kindly voice of the surgery nurse, "The doctor has treated him immediately and the ambulance is on its way, he is conscious but very ill." She asked him if he wanted to say anything to me but he couldnt, and then the ambulance siren and he was gone.

Alone in the house and nothing mattered except that his mother must by now be on her way back from Sainsburys. I waited at the front door and she knew it was bad before she got out of the car. A flurry of packing, a strengthening hug, and she was gone. Two-and-a-half hours M4, M5, M6, M54. Thank God for the mobile phone. I ring the hospital, the doctors are with him. Ward number and directions I pass on to Audrey, she sounds calm, 10 miles south of Birmingham and an hour to go. He is still conscious.

"Ring Alison" she says. Alison is one of our lay readers, why should I find her offer of prayer so comforting, I who attend church so rarely.

I can do nothing now, he must draw on his own and his mothers strength. There are four other children I must see to, the cattle must be milked and fed and the rooms are full of paying guests. The four younger children! James was here four days ago – how infectious is it? The phone rings – it is our own GP. He has been contacted by the hospital and he will have antibiotic courses ready for all the family. I vow never to criticise the NHS again.

&#42 Hours drag

The hours drag now but "no news is good news" they say. Audrey rings: he has not gone into a coma but she sounds scared. He is on drugs and intravenous pain killers and conscious enough to know she is there. "I shall need somewhere to sleep" she says. "Try the college." I do and they offer their guest suite for as long and whenever she needs it. The principal is kind and concerned and I appreciate it, but it is his student, not his son.

I speak to Audrey again in the evening – he is very ill but we agree that I must stay here; if he worsens, I will come.

My alarm wakes me at five. There has been no phone call in the night. I ring the hospital before milking and he is no worse, if he does not relapse, he will live.

Three days later I walk into the ward, knowing he is safe now and he greets me wearily and smiles. Audrey is drained but content, she too knows that her son will live. We talk quietly but then his smiles start to fade and the distress comes until the nurse renews the painkillers. His mother holds his hand, soothes his brow and I see that however much a parent loves a child, it is science that has saved him: Perhaps the strength we bred in him helped, but he lived because the drugs were more powerful than the infection.

When he drifts off to sleep we slip out for lunch and Audrey tells of the agonising pain and writhing limbs of those first hours. She is, I think, in mild shock as we walk through the hall of residence to collect a few things from his room. The healthy students seem almost unreal. James was like that 72 hours ago. A week later he is home. Pale and weak but undamaged. Time will heal and it does. A year on now and one would never know that he had been ill.

He talks about it now, how he felt sick the afternoon before. His friends told him to go to the doctor but he thought not, took a shower and felt better. When he awoke in the morning he knew he was badly ill. His pal called the hall warden, and thank God they had just had a meningitis awareness course. She bravely shoved him into her own car and drove straight to the surgery – thereby probably saving his life, God bless her. Ian Smith

Pick up a pamphlet

about vaccination against meningitis C from your doctor.

MENINGITIS FACTS

Meningitis is an inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord. It can develop very rapidly.

Red or purple bruise-like spots that dont fade under pressure may mean that septicaemia (blood poisoning) is also present. This often accompanies meningitis and can progress quickly to coma and death.

Babies and young people aged 15 to 17 are in the highest risk groups.

Meningitis can be caused by a number of different viruses or bacteria. A new vaccine protects against group C meningitis and septicaemia – the one that causes most deaths – but not against other causes of meningitis and septicaemia.

The disease can develop very quickly – sometimes in a matter of hours. If you can recognise the signs early and get help urgently you can save lives.

Look out for one or more of these symptoms in babies:

&#8226 A high fever.

&#8226 A high-pitched moaning cry.

&#8226 Difficult to wake.

&#8226 Refusal to eat.

&#8226 Pale or blotchy skin.

&#8226 Red or purple bruise-like spots that do not fade under pressure – see the glass test below.

Look out for one or more these symptoms in older children:

&#8226 A high fever.

&#8226 Stiffness in the neck – can the child kiss his/her knee?

&#8226 Drowsiness or confusion.

&#8226 A severe headache.

&#8226 A dislike of bright light.

&#8226 Red or purple bruise-like spots that do not fade under pressure – see the glass test below.

How to do the glass test

Simply press a clear glass firmly against the bruise-like rash. You can see if the rash fades. If the rash doesnt fade contact your doctor immediately.