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Meningitis special report: 'We were told he fell asleep and just didn't wake up again'

Karen Ireland talks to an Antrim mother who lost her student son to the disease, a Hillsborough dad-of-one who survived the illness and a Dungiven mum whose baby fell ill at just three months old.

Sinn Fein councillor for Newry and Mourne Naomi Bailie, (31), originally from Ballygalget, Portaferry, returned home last week after being hospitalised at Christmas where she was in a coma for five weeks after contracting meningitis.

She also underwent six rounds of surgery after collapsing at her home on December 7 last year.

Naomi, who has a baby daughter, Niadh, said that when the symptoms struck she thought it was a bad headache as she suffers from migraines.

Figures from charity Meningitis Now have revealed that eight people in Northern Ireland die from the disease every year.

And of those survivors 14,500 people here are struggling to cope with the life-changing after-effects of meningitis.

While children under five and young people are the most vulnerable, adults can also be struck down with meningitis.

‘We were told he fell asleep and just didn’t wake up again’

Anna McKee (61), from Antrim, works part-time in insurance. She is married to Samuel (63) and they have three children, Leslie (33), Lyndsay (30) and Christopher who passed away from meningitis aged 21 in March, 2011. She says:

Christopher was a happy-go-lucky student studying sports journalism at Sunderland University. He loved student life and we spoke every day on the phone.

Six years ago he phoned me one Thursday evening and told me he was very sick. He told me it was just a bug or the flu and not to worry, but as a mum, I checked in on him again about half an hour later.

He said he felt terrible and was going to go to bed. I told him to look after himself and get some painkillers. That is the last time I ever spoke to my son.

The next day I was in Portrush with friends and I tried to call him but he wasn’t answering his phone.

I thought he must be sleeping but I kept trying. I also phoned home and got Lyndsay to try from home as I had bad service.

Lyndsay couldn’t get him either and by Saturday morning, when we hadn’t heard anything, I knew something wasn’t right. It wasn’t like Christopher not to phone to say he was okay and not to worry.

I rang the student accommodation centre but they couldn’t get any answer and I got my daughter-in-law to send a message to one of his friends on Facebook to go round and check in on him.

Next thing I got a call from Christopher’s phone to say: ‘Is this Christopher McKee’s mum. This is a paramedic I am with your son and he is dead.’

I was standing in the middle of a street in Portrush and I couldn’t take in what I was hearing. I rang my husband and told him about the phone call and he rang the police, but they couldn’t tell him anything.

I know the way the paramedic did it was probably wrong and it was a terrible shock, but maybe he just thought that as his mum I needed to know. And I did.

The university contacted us later that day to confirm the worst news we have ever received. At that stage they didn’t know the cause of death.

A friend had looked in on him on Friday night and thought he was sleeping and when they checked again on Saturday he was in the same position.

Apparently at 3pm on Friday he told his housemates he was going to bed as he had a headache. The next day he was dead.

We were told he fell asleep and just didn’t wake up again. It was 10 days before we got Christopher home and they were the longest of our lives. We were just in limbo waiting to have our son home so we could say goodbye.

Finally, it was confirmed that he died from meningitis.

We live out in the country so the wake went on for 13 days.

I can’t describe the pain of losing Christopher — and it never goes away. But my faith pulls me through. I know God had a plan for Christopher and his days were numbered — that helps me. Without my faith I couldn’t cope, but it doesn’t make the pain any easier.

I contacted the Meningitis Research Foundation as soon as we found out what it was. I want to raise awareness of the signs and symptoms as well as letting people know that meningitis isn’t just an illness for children, it is common in students too. I never knew this and don’t think many people do. This year we are organising a gala ball in memory of Christopher on March 4 at Galgorm Hotel, Ballymena. We will always do what we can to keep Christopher’s memory alive.”

  • For details of the gala ball in memory of Christopher McKee on Saturday, March 4, tel: 028 9032 1283. Tickets £60

‘The medics didn’t know if I was going to pull through’

Gareth Armstrong (33) works in visitors’ services at Hillsborough Castle. He is married to Sharon and they live in Ballynahinch with their son Harvey (6). He says:

Three years ago I started to feel ill and was vomiting. I thought I had food poisoning and it would pass as I’m rarely ill.

At one stage, however, I started to lose my sight and my dad got really worried so he forced me into the car and took me to the doctors in Ballynahinch.

By the time we got there I was pretty out of it and very drowsy. I don’t remember much about being there, but fortunately the doctor recognised the symptoms and immediately gave me an antibiotic shot and called an ambulance.

That injection saved my life. When I got to the hospital it was confirmed I had meningitis — and everyone was really worried about me.

The medics didn’t know if I would pull through or not. And, even if I did, there was a chance I could lose limbs, fingers, toes or my sight and ultimately it could have killed me.

I had all the classic symptoms of meningitis — vomiting, a sore neck, bright lights were difficult to look at — but I didn’t realise it as I didn’t think adults could get meningitis and I wasn’t aware of the symptoms.

I was one of the lucky ones — I came out the other side. It was an horrendous 10 days, particularly for my wife and family. I had to have a lumbar puncture which was very difficult.

In the early stages I had to go back once a week to hospital to check it wasn’t returning. Recovery was slow and it took about two years for me to get back to full health. The fatigue was the hardest to come to terms with and I had a sore back where they did the lumbar puncture.

I started having physio as I wanted to begin running and my goal was to complete a marathon.

I have now run four marathons and eight half marathons, including the London Marathon for the Meningitis Research Foundation.  Currently, I’m in training for the Belfast Marathon in May, again, to raise funds for the charity.

I want to give something back. It is thanks to its research that I am alive with no permanent damage.

I’ve got a second chance at life now and am here for a reason, so I want to do all that I can to help others and to raise awareness. I am so thankful to my wife and family who stayed with me 24/7 and who never gave up on me.

The most important message I can give people is to be aware of the symptoms and if you are in any doubt visit your GP.”

‘We know how lucky we are... that vaccine saved Padraig’s life’

Maria Bradley (32) is a clinical psychologist and is married to Vincent, (34), a student at Queen’s University, Belfast. They have one son Padraig, (14 months) and live in Dungiven. She says:

Last February, Padraig was a perfectly happy healthy baby. He was three months old and doing great.

Then, one morning I had trouble wakening him. He still seemed sleepy and out of sorts.

I thought he would stir when he was hungry, but when I tried to feed him he didn’t want it.

He was sleeping a lot and then making an unusual sound. His temperature went up and he had a really runny nappy.

I was anxious, so I phoned my mum as she is a nurse — she knew immediately that something was wrong.

I drove him straight to Altnagelvin Hospital and when we got there he was really drowsy.

He didn’t even react much when they started to put needles into him to take blood.

By this stage his skin was blotchy and we were worried sick. The doctors gave him an antibiotic right away.

We were told he had meningococcal meningitis and he had to be intubated to keep him alive and was put on live support.

He needed a blood transfusion and we were transported by blue light ambulance to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.

We were warned at this stage that his limbs, fingers and toes were at risk.

The medics were also doing all they could to keep his organs working.

He was a very sick baby and his dad and I were going out of our minds with worry.

Padraig was in hospital for two weeks and it was the worst and longest fortnight of our lives.

Vincent and I were at the hospital around the clock and, to be honest, there were times we were worried if he was going to make it.

He just seemed so small and so helpless. He was in intensive care and being tube fed and doing well, but then he took a seizure and we were worried about the effect it would have on his brain.

Finally, he got out of intensive care and onto the ward and then, after two weeks, we were told he was doing well enough to come home.

We know how lucky we are. Padraig was caught early and that vaccination saved his life. Not every story has a happy ending.

We were warned he could have hearing impairment or other damage, but he is a perfectly healthy baby.

We owe so much to the doctors and nurses at Altnagelvin and the Royal. Because of the job I do and the patients I work with, I was worried all the time about the impact the disease was having on his brain and we were preparing for the worst.

Padraig proved everyone wrong and was a real fighter and he never gave up.

So now we don’t want to give up and we want to raise as much support and awareness for meningitis charities as possible.

We did a sponsored walk in September and it was called Carry Padraig, as everyone carried us (emotionally) through the difficult days. Everyone took turns to carry him in a sling.

We raised £5,500, which was divided between Meningitis Research Foundation, Royal Intensive Care and Altnagelvin Hospital.

The medicine he was given saved his life. If we hadn’t got him to the hospital when we did, it could be a different story now.”

Warning signs to look out for

Fever, cold hands and feet, vomiting, drowsy, difficult to wake

Confusion and irritability

Severe muscle pain, pale, blotchy skin. Spots/rash

Severe headache, stiff neck, dislike bright lights

Giving a helping hand

If you have any symptoms or concerns contact your GP immediately — log onto www.meningitis.org

To register in the River Rock Belfast Marathon or fun run contact johnnyb@meningitis.org

Meningitis Now: visit MeningitisNow.org or call its helpline tel: 0808 80 10 388.

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