In the valley of the shadow

Gil McNeil's son Joe was three when he caught meningitis; the next few hours were the most terrifying of her life. A mother remembers every parent's nightmare I felt sure that I should be doing something - some vital piece of first aid I couldn't recall
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MENINGITIS. A word guaranteed to cause dread among parents everywhere. When I came home from work one Monday lunchtime, I didn't expect to be faced with every parent's nightmare. I'd come home to check on my three- year-old son Joe, who had a cold, but instead found him semi-conscious and showing classic signs of meningitis - a rash, a very high temperature and sensitivity to light.

At first I tried to deny it, and thought I'd make some lunch and see how he was doing in an hour: it was bound to be just another of those minor things that always seem so dramatic and turn out to be nothing at all. I really tried to convince myself that it was just another of those heart-stopping moments that beset every parent from time to time.

Deep down, though, I knew something was seriously wrong. I'd read all the baby books and had always felt a twinge of fear when I came across entries for meningitis. Along with cot death, it seemed one of the few really serious things to fear. Now, it seemed it might actually be happening to my child. Each time I looked again at Joe's neck - he had three tiny, dark purple, sinister-looking marks - I felt a new wave of shock.

I rang my GP and said I was bringing Joe round - I live only five minutes from the surgery - but as I picked him up to put him into his buggy he vomited with his eyes wide open, and could not be roused by my increasingly hysterical attempts to wake him. I was almost paralysed with shock and fear; my mind went blank. I thought of calling an ambulance - but what if it took too long? I felt sure I should be doing something - some vital piece of first aid that I couldn't recall, some way to rouse him. I decided to call the GP's surgery and insist a doctor came round.

I remember calling Joe's name over and over again while dialling the doctor's number. When I heard myself saying to her that I thought it might be meningitis, it was if somebody else was speaking.

To her eternal credit my GP ran round, took one look at Joe and called an ambulance. On the phone, she mentioned the word meningitis. I felt as if I had been hit by some huge, invisible object. Hearing the word spoken out loud by a doctor confirmed all my worst fears. She ran off to get some penicillin, and gave Joe an injection as he lay in my arms on the living-room floor. Later, various doctors told me how crucial this was - an early dose of antibiotics can be a life-saver.

The ambulance arrived and I carried Joe into it. Actually seeing the ambulance and crew brought another wave of shock and panic - everything seemed so unreal. I remember asking Joe's nanny to pack a bag with his favourite toys and a drink - as if he would be needing them in the next few hours. Then, of course, I forgot to take the bag with us.

After what seemed like an endless journey - actually about 15 minutes - we arrived at the local hospital. The paediatric consultant was very quickly with us in the resuscitation room, putting in drips and impressing on everyone the need for speed.

Joe was in shock, suffering from septicaemia. This is a total poisoning of the system, a common companion to meningococcal meningitis - and very often fatal. By now he had a terrifying rash, dark reddish-purple blotches that seemed to increase in size before our eyes. At one point I was holding up a bag of fluid and squeezing it while the team found an extra drip- stand.

My feelings at this time were mixed: I felt a strong desire to hold on to Joe and never let him go, combined with an urgent need to leave the room and not face the situation. The consultant had called the specialist team at Guy's Hospital, and they were on their way down by ambulance. My parents had arrived by this time, and the fact that they were as shocked as I was was strangely comforting.

When the Guy's team arrived, it was like something from a television drama series: they had loads of bags with Velcro fasteners, so a tremendous sound of ripping accompanied their early assessment of Joe. Somehow, all this unpacking reassured me - it was as if all that Velcro held the promise of safety.

While Joe was transferred to the paediatric intensive care unit at Guy's by ambulance, my father drove me there because there wasn't enough room for me in the ambulance - a nightmare journey through rush-hour traffic. We arrived at Guy's before Joe. This was devastating, since I was convinced the Guy's team had stop-ped somewhere and were performing some desperate roadside surgery. But sure enough they soon arrived, with Joe looking very tiny on a big hospital bed.

We settled into intensive care, with a wonderful nurse who sat at the end of the bed all night and kept saying how well Joe was doing. And he was. My sister Jane and I sat up all night, reassuring each other and holding him. He alternated between saying very encouraging things about wanting a drink or an apple, and looking straight at me and saying that he wanted his Mum.

Gradually his skin started to look more normal, and he was more coherent for longer periods. He had breathed unaided the whole time, and next day - when his temperature was lower - we were moved to a small room off a ward. After a long haul of massive doses of antibiotics and constant monitoring, Joe went back to the local hospital and from there to home. Now, one month later, he has made a complete recovery, with none of the terrible side- effects such as blindness or deafness that can accompany such a devastating illness. I am slowly starting to relax and not watch him constantly for any signs of relapse.

Looking back on those terrifying hours at the local hospital, I am grateful for many things. I was amazed, for a start, by the sheer number of people available to help my child. The consultant was marvellous, helping me through those first ghastly moments, stressing how serious things were but never being negative - and the whole time keeping his eyes fixed firmly on Joe. The experience was a great testament to the National Health Service, and I feel tremendously lucky.

While we were in hospital, Joe's playgroup was visited by the local health authority and the children were given doses of antibiotics. I (and as many of his close contacts as I could think of) took the same tablets. They had the interesting side-effect of producing orange urine - which apparently delighted the children. I was warned, too, not to wear contact lenses to avoid permanent orange stains - though at the time I didn't care what colour they went.

Meningitis is a terrifying disease. Though my GP and the consultant res- ponded speedily and an intensive care bed was available, not all patients are so lucky. On Sunday, the day before I'd come home to that terrible scene, I took Joe to the GP on duty. She checked him thoroughly, diagnosed a viral infection and recommended Calpol to lower his temperature. I'm sure she didn't miss anything - but in less than 24 hours Joe had deteriorated so much it was scarcely believable. It is simply that the symptoms are extremely difficult to spot before the crisis hits.

More worrying is the thought that there is little parents can do to protect their children. The vaccine currently available only covers one strain of bacterial meningitis, known as Hib, so children are not protected from all strains even if they have been inoculated.

Yet survival is common if the illness is recognised early enough. In 1994, 1,823 cases (mostly bacterial) were reported; 10 per cent of patients died, 15 per cent are left with serious side-effects but over 75 per cent made a full recovery. I'm thankful that my son was one of these lucky ones. Apart from an overwhelming desire to wrap him in cotton wool and unwrap him in about 30 years' time, I'm gradually getting over the shock. Joe, being so young, was less thrown by it all. For him, the main thing is that he is free from nurses giving him "jections".

! For information contact The National Meningitis Trust, Fern House, Bath Road, Stroud, Gloucestershire GL5 3TJ (0453 751738; 24-hour helpline 0453 755049).