Coming Of Age: 21 Years On From The Wishaw E. Coli 0157 Outbreak

Coming of age: 21 years on from the Wishaw E. coli 0157 outbreak

Some tragedies never get a memorial. Maybe they aren’t really tragedies, in the bigger picture. Headline news, that becomes a minor story, that then vanishes, and isn’t mentioned again, as anniversaries come and go. 21 years ago my home town was hit by a tragedy, that became a footnote, on other stories of similar tragedies.

Wishaw is not the kind of town you visit. You would only ever be there because you’re from there, or your family is. Nothing special. Mention it, and you will find it is almost always associated with its one claim to fame – the worst ever outbreak of E. coli 0157.

1996. I was ten. Just. The day before my birthday, I felt unwell. I think I was off school. But on my birthday I said I felt better and went in. After school I felt really ill. Then, blood in the toilet. I will always remember the absolute terror. I thought I was dying. I was.

They admitted me that night to the local general hospital. My mum stayed with me, cared for me. The hospital was full, running in a state of panic. So my little room was not the centre of attention, my mum cared for me herself. She was pregnant. E. coli 0157 is highly infectious, and dangerous. She should never been in the hospital, much less in my room.

For the longest time, I thought she hadn’t known. Didn’t know the risks and that’s why she stayed. Only much later did she tell me, that she knew, that she had been so, so careful but without scaring me – so no gloves, nothing that would make me feel like my mum wasn’t there with me. The risk, and the fear, and the ultimate futility of it. She got sick too.

I was admitted on the Thursday, 27th November. That day, at some time, my mum wasn’t in the room. I was on my own and had been watching CITV or CBBC, on the tiny telly on the wall in the corner. Kids TV finished, and the news came on. There was a reporter, standing outside the hospital (that’s all a town is in a crisis, a street outside a hospital, or a burnt out building or a cordoned off street, a reporter and a road.). She said that a 10 year girl had been admitted overnight and her condition was described as serious.

My condition was described as serious.

No one ever really tells a child how sick they are or how worried the grown-ups are. But even without a journalist, you know. You can sense it. You can’t contain it though. I thought I was dying before anyone else did, and for a long time afterwards. I couldn’t put a lid on it, once the monster had escaped.

Initially, I was so angry that I was going to die before I had done anything, gone anywhere, been anyone. In time though, you get used to it. You rage, rage and then you accept. In the long term, that was the hardest thing. Once you have accepted the idea of dying, it is surprisingly hard to give up.

My kidneys failed quickly. This is a rare, serious complication. It’s what kills people, with E. coli, mostly. The doctors didn’t notice. The nurses didn’t notice. My mum tried to get their attention, that something wasn’t right. A visiting specialist noticed, and saved my life. I was transferred to the children’s hospital in Glasgow, for surgery, then dialysis, and a long, slow recovery.

I remember the room before surgery. A TV playing the Simpsons. I was hysterical. That people were going to cut me open while watching cartoons. Amazing how kids misunderstand the things meant to make them feel better.

Eventually, dialysis stopped. I was mostly at home. My favourite teacher came to the house to help me catch up. I went back before the end of the school year, just for a morning, then two a week, then an afternoon as well.

I never really had friends at that school after that. It was too big, too hard I think for the kids there. We were all only 10, they all knew what had happened but not what to say, what to do. And afterwards, I was angry, found it hard to ‘go back to normal’ And I think now I was partly angry with them. All the ones that didn’t get sick.

Lots of people did though, in that small town. 21 people died. So many were sick. There were six kids in the children’s hospital, the worst of the young ill. We all survived though. The dead were elderly. Many of them were at the same funeral, ate the same food and got sick together.

How does a place survive a disaster?

It all started from one shop, one man. It closed, for a while, then came back. So many people in that town, people I knew in some cases, campaigned for it to reopen, stood behind him. I imagine they thought it was about forgiveness. To me, it was a betrayal. He eventually received a £5000 fine. 21 lives, so many sick, my life, derailed. £5000.

I never heard him say he was sorry.

There is no memorial, in that town. Not for this disaster. Not for those lives. 21 years on, there is no marker, and no real ending. Tragedies don’t end, really, they are just gradually forgotten.


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