When Tom was at death's door

At first it seemed like an ordinary viral infection. But Karl Bamford's 14-month-old son was suffering from meningitis
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Our middle son, Tom, is four in November. Physically, he towers above his contemporaries. He is very boisterous, very demanding and we love him to bits. When he was 14 months old he came so close to death that the lights go out in my mind every time I think about it. He had meningitis.

Sunday 2 April 1993 began like most Sundays. I played football in the morning and then took Jackie, my wife, Sam, our eldest son, who was nearly four at the time, and Tom to my parents' house for Sunday lunch. It is always a treat: my mum makes the best gravy in the world.

Our children, like most when visiting grandparents, usually run amok on arrival. This time, Sam ran amok but Tom went straight into the lounge, lay on the settee and fell asleep. By the time he woke up a couple of hours later his temperature had soared. He just lay there, with his hands behind his head, looking like a teenager studying a favourite poster. Soon he started to throw up.

The previous week Jackie, Sam and I had all had viral infections: we assumed the most junior member of the family had now succumbed. Calpol did not seem to make much difference.

At about 6.30pm we called out the doctor on call. He diagnosed a viral infection, as we had suspected. "Plenty of fluid and keep up the Calpol," was his parting advice.

The following morning Tom was still feverish, lethargic and throwing up even the fluids we gave him. We called our own GP who came to see him very quickly. He also thought it was a viral infection, but said we should call again the next morning if there was no improvement. Tom's condition stayed the same all day and night. The "viral infection" was lasting longer than we expected. On Tuesday morning we called the doctor out again.

Our GP examined Tom, and this time surprised us by asking to use the telephone. He then gave us a letter for the local hospital, telling us to take Tom straight to the paediatrician on duty. He told us not to panic: having Tom checked over was just a precaution.

In a slight state of shock we travelled the eight miles to the hospital. I still can't remember that journey. At the hospital, the duty paediatrician came to greet us. It was then that I first heard the word meningitis. An inflammation of the meninges (the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord) due to infection, viral or bacterial. I knew little about the condition but I can still recollect Jackie's sharp intake of breath when the word was mentioned. Within seconds, Tom had been whisked away for a lumbar puncture to withdraw some of his cerebrospinal fluid for analysis. Someone was going to stick a needle in my son's spinal cord. It would be unpleasant, said the nurse: we should stay put.

The next few hours are a blur. I remember looking at Jackie and seeing her eyes fill with tears as a nurse talked gently to her. I remember Sam playing with some toys scattered on the floor; he seemed to be cranking the loudest toy in the world up and down the floor. I screamed at him to stop it. I never scream at my children.

I asked someone, I don't recall who, about meningitis. It was Jackie who replied. She looked at me, her face tear-stained, and talked of blindness, deafness and brain-damage. She talked about death. I felt light-headed, terrified. The paediatrician came back. She said that although they were waiting for the formal result of the lumbar puncture, the fluid they had withdrawn was rather "milky" and she was fairly certain that Tom had meningitis. I asked a stupid question. I asked, would he be all right? She did not answer. There would be no answers for some time.

We were able to see Tom soon after. He was lying in a side-room, an intravenous drip in the back of his hand. He looked pale, confused, helpless. He maintained his "teenager" pose the whole time but now we knew why. He was supporting his aching and painful neck.

Within hours he was diagnosed as having meningococcal B bacterial meningitis, one of the most dangerous forms of the disease. For days he lay hardly moving, being bombarded with antibiotics. We kept telling ourselves he was a strong boy who ate well. We kept hoping and praying he would recover.

Over the next few days we hardly left Tom's side; to our shame we almost forgot about Sam, who was being looked after by my sister. Days and nights merged. Jackie was five months' pregnant at the time and convinced our unborn child was going to be harmed by the disease, despite doctors' reassurances to the contrary.

On the following Saturday afternoon at seven minutes past three, Tom turned over and smiled at me. It was the first real sign of recognition or improvement he had shown. I thought to myself, "Please God, let him pull through".

On Sunday morning Tom was showing further signs of improvement. By Sunday evening the doctors were talking in terms of recovery, although they said it was too early to predict long-term effects of the illness. By Monday they were talking of Tom going home the next day. Our stocky, blond little boy was going to pull through.

I have never felt so humble in all my life. I promised myself there and then I would savour every moment of his life, whatever happened.

Tuesday came and we took Tom home. For the next fortnight he had to consume vast quantities of medicine, which he did without complaint. Two weeks later, we went to see his consultant. He conducted some simple tests and pronounced our child fully recovered: there had been no lasting damage.

Our third son, Jack, was born perfectly healthy the following August.

I find it very hard not to give in to Tom. He is very demanding. At times he is, quite simply, very naughty. But most importantly, he is here.

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