Lisa McHugh: 'I'm so glad to be alive - the headache I thought was a migraine turned out to be meningitis'
Country music singing sensation Lisa McHugh counts her blessings every day after surviving a bout of viral meningitis two years ago, which nearly went undiagnosed. Helen Carson reports
With a fifth album just out and back-to-back gigs lined up all over the UK playing to thousands of fans, life is pretty sweet for singer-songwriter Lisa McHugh.
The Enniskillen-based singer has beauty and talent by the spadeful, but as she turns 28 this week, Lisa is grateful to be alive.
While most young singers enjoying her level of popularity would be worrying about their fans' reactions to their latest album - Lisa's newest musical offering is simply called #Country - the Glasgow-born performer says things could have been very different.
Lisa, whose dad Joe is from Co Tyrone and mum Sally is from Co Donegal, recalls how she was struck down by viral meningitis two years ago in the middle of a tour - and the experience has changed her attitude to her health forever.
"I had taken a sore head when I was on tour but I dismissed it as just another headache as I suffer from migraines," she says. "I had a gig that night so I just got up on stage and performed, but the headache just wouldn't go away. No matter what pain relief I took, it made no difference. Nothing was making the pain better and I remember mentioning it to my tour manager Cathal Fee who was really worried about me. He even said to my mum and dad he was so concerned about my health."
Reluctantly, Lisa agreed to go to hospital the next day so that doctors could take a look at her. "I was still in agony and at hospital the doctors gave me morphine to take away the pain and sent me home," she adds. "At that stage I didn't know I was suffering from meningitis and that night I was back out again performing another show."
By this stage, though, Lisa was really ill: "I came off after the show and just collapsed. I was admitted to hospital where the doctors did further investigations before doing a lumbar punch test and discovered that I had meningitis.
"I was in so much danger and I didn't even realise," she says. "Had I just carried on it could've been a very different story. If Cathal hadn't insisted on getting me to the hospital and I hadn't had my mum and dad there I don't even want to think what could have happened. It was so frightening and such a shock.
"Fortunately for me I had the right people around me."
While it was a happy outcome for Lisa, she spent six weeks in recovery trying to get back to full strength.
"Even after my time spent getting better with the best medical support and drugs I still wasn't 100% afterwards."
After the horrific brush with death, Lisa says her health is not something she takes for granted, especially with the gruelling touring schedule she has and the lifestyle which goes with it.
"I work out with a personal trainer, Richard Linton, every day at Push Fitness in Enniskillen and one of the main reasons for doing that is because I survived meningitis. Going to a personal trainer gives me that extra boost when it comes to keeping fit and staying healthy," she says.
"I work on strength and conditioning with Richard because life on the road means sitting in a car for hours travelling to gigs."
Lisa also suffered a Strep C infection when she was three years old which is a potentially deadly disease - and a very worrying time for her parents - so the successful singer has learned to value her life.
"Touring means you cannot eat as well as you should. While I'm at home it's easy to be healthy, but on the road sometimes you just have to grab something quick at a garage in between shows," she says.
"Because I go to the gym every day, though, I do treat myself and am not afraid to have chocolate or a glass of wine. I have a very sweet tooth and love sugary things like cake which is my favourite - but I will try to eat it as little as possible. If I am stuck in the car for hours I will eat through boredom rather than hunger so that's the time when I eat sweets."
This clean-living country girl says she has never smoked in her life but is a 'social drinker' who never takes a tipple during the week but will enjoy a glass of Rose on a night out.
While meningitis has not robbed Lisa of living her dream - she is currently touring here, the Republic and dates in Scotland to bring her brand of country music to fans as well as a non-stop round of media interviews and promotional opportunities - she says she never for one moment takes her health for granted.
"I am so grateful to Cathal who insisted I go to hospital. To me it was just another migraine, but thankfully I got the right help in time," she adds.
And Lisa looks after her health now - every day.
"When I was sick I wanted to build up my immune system so I take a multi-vitamin tonic everyday which combines all the essential vitamins and minerals your body needs in one dose. It's my go-to product, along with drinking water, which I believe keeps me healthy," she says.
Having found her singing voice at the age of seven, Lisa sang and played the guitar at primary school, dabbling with all types of music.
Since then she has won an award for Outstanding Achievement on the World Stage 2012 for her performance at the Grand Ole Opry in the home of American country music, Nashville, as well as lifting Female Vocalist of the Year plaudits four times.
And there is no slowing down for the award-winning singer who says time out is a rare thing.
"To be honest I don't take time out when I am here as I am working - even on a day off I am checking emails until night time and thinking about my career," she says.
At the minute I have been losing some sleep over all the work that has to be done to make my album a success - but that will pass when all the activity is over, and I will go back to normal again."
Lisa admits the hard work only stops for her when she jets out of Northern Ireland for a family break.
"I was in Majorca at the beginning of July and it was just lovely, very hot and a great way to relax before my tour," she says.
And Enniskillen is now home to Lisa who moved here six years ago with dreams of making it big on the country music scene.
For a while Lisa dated fellow country music star Nathan Carter, now though the pair are firm friends and both, coincidentally, live in the Co Fermanagh town.
They still partner up, but these days it's on the music circuit with Lisa playing support at some of Nathan's show this month, including the Timeleague Festival Dome in West Cork tonight.
With Lisa's next project a live DVD there is plenty to keep her busy. "There is a lot of planning to be done with the live DVD but it is all so exciting," she says.
- For details of Lisa's August gigs which includes dates here visit lisa-mchugh.com For further information contact the Meningitis Foundation, tel: 028 9032 1283 or visit meningitis.org