It’s a cliché thing to say but I always thought I was a pretty normal person in London.
Last summer was a good one, having moved down a year after graduating, started a new job, and met plenty of friends. The World Cup was on, so like everyone else I was either at work or watching football.
The Monday I returned from some time away with my dad, I was feeling achy, tired and just a bit off. I guess I’d had a busy weekend, but I hadn’t done anything unusual. By the Friday I still felt pretty crap but with the England-Croatia semi-final on the Wednesday, and a work event on the Thursday, I just didn’t think there was anything wrong with me other than being tired.
I spent that Friday evening having a few drinks by the river, and again just wasn’t feeling 100%. At some point I headed home, saying I was tired. I got on the tube to head home to Brixton but probably two or three stops in, I very suddenly started to lose my peripheral vision. Black lines blocked my vision on either side, and I remember thinking ‘this isn’t normal’.
I got off the tube, and was immediately sick. I was shocked – I’d had maybe two or three beers, definitely not enough to make me ill. I assumed I’d eaten something funny and decided to get back on the tube. My journey home should have taken about 45mins. It took me two-and-a-half hours.
“Even though I was feeling around 80%, I decided to go on the date. As it turned out, it was a very good job I did.”
I woke up the next day and thought something just hadn’t sat right with me – I felt better again and thought whatever it was that wasn’t right, I’d got it out of my system. I had a date planned on Saturday night but, even though I was feeling around 80%, I decided to go out.
As it turned out, it was a very good job I did.
I met my date, got us a drink, and felt fine. We were getting on well, having a nice time, when she offered to get the next round. As soon as she walked off, I suddenly got hit by this awful feeling. I made my way to the bathroom and this time was sick violently. Suddenly I also had the worst headache of my life, like my head was being ripped open. Right then, I knew something wasn’t right and I had to go. I made my apologies and said – an hour into our date – that I was just feeling really sick and that I’d love to see her again, but I had to go home.
I probably managed one stop on the bus before I had to get off to be sick again – and that’s when things started to get more hazy.
I remember trying to get up to see when the next bus was coming, and was sick once more. I tried to pull up Uber on my phone, but I couldn’t work out what to do, or where the app was on my phone. I didn’t call any friends or family, I was just too focused on getting home.
This went on for at least 30 minutes until, thankfully, my good Samaritan appeared. I believe she was called Ellen.
I remember her friends saying something like ‘he’s drunk, leave him alone and he’ll be fine’. I was not. She realised I could talk semi-coherently and was not blind drunk. She got me a bottle of water, sat down with me, held me upright. She asked if I wanted to go home, and by that point, I don’t think I was really that clear. She decided the best thing to do was call me an ambulance.
I didn’t know how lucky I was – if I had got home without seeing anyone, I possibly wouldn’t have survived the night.
After a trip in the ambulance and some painkillers I remember being in A&E with no clear idea what was wrong. What felt like hours later, a consultant comes to see me. Her first question was “how long have you had that rash?” I look down and my forearms and hands were covered. I hadn’t even seen it, it must have come up that quickly. Next she asked “well, can you move your neck”, and, lying down, I suddenly realised my neck had completely stiffened up. From there, she was like ‘right, it’s meningitis’, and put me into quarantine, got me listed as contagious, and placed straight on IV antibiotics.
The only other thing I remember about that night was being put in my isolated room, and messaging my family saying only that I was in hospital and that I had meningitis. That was it. In my head, meningitis was something I’d heard of but not something I’d ever really been taught about other than knowing it affects children and babies. I didn’t realise it could affect me as an adult, and I didn’t even think twice about how serious it could be – or indeed was.
I was quarantined for a week. It actually went by quite quickly, either reading or resting. Sometimes I could talk fine, other times I couldn’t talk at all. The hospital’s estimate was that I could be there for two weeks, but fortunately I responded very quickly to antibiotics and, just over a week after I first came in, I was discharged and sent on my way.
I had this vision of me suddenly straight back at work because, again, I’d never read about the after-effects that meningitis can have. I took four weeks off; looking back I should have taken more. I effectively had constant headaches and migraines for six months that I tried to manage with painkillers, but then sometimes it’d get so much worse that I couldn’t function.
In my day job as a data analyst, I spend my day looking at numbers on a screen and trying to solve problems. I just remember looking at a screen and couldn’t think, couldn’t work out what I was meant to be doing, like I’d forgotten everything I previously knew. My work were great, they gave me as much time as I needed, let me work flexibly – the pressure really came from myself. I was just expecting too much of myself. In many ways, those were the worst parts of my recovery, harder than my time in hospital.
“I was just expecting too much of myself. In many ways, those were the worst parts of my recovery, harder than my time in hospital.”
The best advice I got was from my sister, a doctor, who said to me: “you’ve got to stop comparing yourself to how you were before you ill – you’ve got to compare yourself to how you were yesterday. If you worked two hours more this week, that’s good you’re moving forward. It’s progress.”
I held on to that, and six months later I was back to where I used to feel. Now I only get bad migraines occasionally, which can knock me out for a couple of days. Compared to a lot of people who survive meningitis that’s very, very minor and I’m very thankful given how hard it can be for others. It did feel like again, I know my experience is nowhere near as bad as some people have, but when I did get back to 100% I felt I had got through something really tough, physically and mentally and, in a slightly odd way, I was proud of that.
Partway through my recovery, I decided I should give myself something to aim for. This year’s Vitality 10,000, months away at that point, felt like a good start. Alongside the personal challenge, it gave me the opportunity to raise money for Meningitis Now, the UK’s largest meningitis charity. So that they could help people who have been what through what I went through and come off in a less fortunate way. I came to realise that if I’m physically and mentally able to do that after what I experienced, then I ‘owed’ it to those who aren’t. It was the least I could do to give back in that way.
In hospital, I knew wanted to say thank you to my good Samaritan. I asked for the ambulance record, which they couldn’t give to me. I didn’t know where to go from there. My brother remembered I told him her name was Ellen, and for some reason I thought she was Norwegian? Apparently I was insistent that was the case.
Around World Meningitis Day, 24 April, I spoke with Meningitis Now about my experience. At that point I hadn’t told the complete story to anyone; I always try to get through things myself (which in this case was probably a bad thing). I think I tried to ‘protect’ my family by not telling them exactly how hard recovery was. Meningitis Now decided to start a social media campaign, #FindEllen, and started this whole push to find her – but unfortunately we haven’t been able to yet.
The incredible thing to me is that Ellen probably has no idea what happened to me. She did an incredible thing and had a massive impact on my life, but she probably doesn’t know just how sick I was. After battling meningitis and recovering, it really would be the icing on the cake to just say thank you, and make someone realise those small acts of kindness can mean so much. You just never know.
There’s no knowing how close I was to something terrible happening but once meningitis starts it goes downhill very quickly and if you don’t get immediate help your chances of survival decrease rapidly. If you remove Ellen from the equation, there’s no telling what could have happened.
As told to Charlie Lindlar
For more information on meningitis, visit the Meningitis Now website
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