'I was resigned to the fact that I might die, but I couldn't accept that I would never walk again'
A mystery illness left photographer Kevin McAuley at death’s door and unable to take a single step. Even the life-saving treatment caused him to have horrendous hallucinations, he tells Laurence White
When Ballycastle photographer Kevin McAuley took ill in January he thought he had the flu. Instead the symptoms were the first signs of a devastating infection which left him just hours from death.
He spent more than 17 weeks in hospital and only now has he recovered sufficiently to be able to walk without a stick.
The infection attacked major organs, left him unable to walk … but astonishingly reduced the affects of his diabetes.
He also lost an incredible eight stone in weight.
Kevin (55), who runs a freelance photography agency with his son Steven (23) in the north Antrim town, had flu-like symptoms - feelings of nausea and lack of energy - for about 10 days when he finally admitted he felt sufficiently ill to recuperate in bed.
He recalls: "I just couldn't keep going. My wife Donna had been urging me to go to the doctor, but I was busy with work. However, I hadn't the energy to do it and thought if I took to my bed I would shake off what I imagined was a dose of the flu.
"But on the night of February 4/5 things came to a head. I phoned my son who was working for a newspaper and I was talking to him in riddles. What I was saying did not make sense. I did not know what day it was or even if it was day or night."
Kevin adds: "Steven came home that night and, even though days previously I had forbidden my wife to call the doctor, he rang the doctor on call that night. This was around midnight, but the doctor had to come from Dungannon and also had a list of other calls. I was last on his list and he arrived at about 4.50am.
"I had made my way from the bedroom to the living room but was very weak. I had to basically slide along the floor to keep myself upright. The doctor asked me how long I had the symptoms and what day it was. I didn't know the day. He asked me what year and I said 1948! I even told him Steven was my father.
"He told me I had a serious infection of some kind and that if I did not get to the Causeway Hospital in Coleraine very quickly I might die. I was certainly able to understand that."
An ambulance was summoned - luckily one was in Ballycastle at the time - but when Kevin got out of his chair to walk out to it he fell flat on his face.
"From that point, it was seven to eight weeks before I could attempt to walk again," says Kevin.
Things became a bit of a blur after his arrival at hospital. He knows that he was rushed straight through to a treatment area, drips were put up, at various points during the next few days he underwent a series of scans.
He recalls: "It was probably three or four days before I came round. Obviously Donna and Steven were very anxious. I had a number of blood tests which showed colossally high infection markers. Essentially the infection was at a critical stage.
"I was given a cocktail of antibiotics because the doctors did not know which ones would work on their own. I was on those antibiotics for eight weeks as they waited for me to respond. Thank God I did."
But the high dosage of medicines had side effects which were as terrifying as the blood poisoning he was infected by.
"I imagined I could see rats and other reptiles running around the ward. The rats were running along the rails of the curtains around the beds and jumping into the beds and I was screaming at the nurses to get them out. Of course it was all in my head, but it seemed real to me.
"On another occasion I imagined a helicopter was landing just outside the ward. I could feel the ward shaking and believed that the pilot was going to knock it down. That was frightening. I now believe this image entered my head because on previous visits to the hospital during my work I had seen helicopters landing with casualties. Somehow the drugs must have triggered that image."
Such was the reality of the images he imagined that he even dreamt about them, meaning there was no release from the terror even in sleep.
As time went on doctors mixed the infection with Kevin's blood in the lab to see if it would continue to grow. "They did this three times but it didn't grow. That was when they knew the antibiotics had done their job," he says.
However Kevin's problems were far from over. The infection had attacked his organs causing clots in his lungs and issues with his kidneys and liver. Fortunately it did not affect his heart although often that is one of the targets of blood poisoning. That, he believes, was fundamental to his survival.
Treatment managed to scatter the clots and improve his kidney function. He still has problems with his liver but it is improving and, he hopes, will continue to do so.
"Amazingly this all helped my diabetes. Before I went into hospital I had to manage it with tablets and insulin, now I just have to use diet to control it. The fact that I have lost more than eight stone - I weighed well over 20 stones - has also helped but I need to lose even more to keep the diabetes in check and assist in the recovery of my liver," he says.
After 10 weeks in the Causeway Hospital Kevin was transferred to Dalriada Hospital in his home town. At one point it was earmarked for closure but now, designated as a step-down from an acute hospital, it takes in patients from a wide area and has great physiotherapy facilities.
Kevin had begun learning to walk again at the Causeway Hospital but it was a very slow process..
"For a number of weeks I was bed bound. I could feed myself but had no mobility from the waist down and needed help with everything else," he says.
"When I began learning to walk I could not even stand with the help of two physios and a walking frame. Then after about two weeks I managed to stand in the frame. By the time I left that hospital I could walk the length of a six bay ward. For seven weeks I had to learn how to walk properly. Initially it was only in the ward or a short distance in the corridor. It was excruciatingly painful and I honestly thought I would not be able to do it.
"At one stage during my illness I thought I might die and I was resigned to that because it was a real option. What I could not accept was that I might never walk again. Obviously as a photographer I was always running about in all sorts of places and it would have been dreadful not to be able to do that again."
He adds: "I remember looking out of the ward window in Dalriada and seeing the road about 100 yards away and thinking I will never be able to walk that distance."
But eventually his mobility increased, although when he first stepped outside the door of the hospital he almost panicked.
"In the corridor I had the walks as support but outside there was nothing and I was sure I would topple over. Around this time I had progressed from the walking frame to a walking stick," he says.
The breakthrough in his progress came one day when he went for a walk with a physio and began chatting to her about what she had been doing at the weekend. He says: "Before that I was always concentrating on what I was doing and worrying about how I was getting on. Talking about something else took my mind off the exercise and I suddenly felt I could do it."
When Kevin was finally released from hospital he continued to improve day by day and last weekend finally began walking without any aid.
"I can even bend down and put on my shoes without fear of falling over," he says.
"At one stage it would have been very easy just to say that I couldn't do the exercises and have ended up in a wheelchair. Walking up steps is still difficult because I have had to build up the muscles in my legs."
Kevin is full of praise for every member of the NHS he encountered on his journey back to health.
"You often hear people criticising the NHS but I could not praise it enough. I had all that treatment and the subsequent physiotherapy for free. God knows what it would have cost," he says.
"I have no doubt that my consultant Dr Charles Jack, a cardiologist, saved my life at the Causeway Hospital. He was always keen to tell me that he was backed up by a very big team of experts and that my determination and fighting spirit was second to none and that was vital. The attention I got in both hospitals was second to none, better than I could have expected and Dr Jack made me feel good even on my darkest days.
"This has certainly made me more appreciative of my life. I had as close a brush with death as I ever want to have and I am very thankful to get the opportunity to live again.
"I was like most men, very unwilling to go to the doctor. I would now appeal to any man who feels unwell in any way to seek medical help. That could save their lives.
"I know that I had blood poisoning but I don't know how I got infected. That just shows how a serious illness can strike literally out of the blue."