Meningitis. The very word is enough to strike terror into any mother's heart. Today it is a well-publicised disease - we all know about 'the tumbler test' for instance. But forty years ago, when my baby became ill, it was a very different story. I'm happy to tell you, here and now, that it has a happy ending. But if it can help one person to recognise less well-publicised symptoms, and save one child's life, then I think it is worth the telling.
Suzie, my daughter, was seven weeks old. I'd had a week's confinement after my waters broke before she was born, three weeks early, and I sometimes wonder if the fact that I was open to infection during that time had any bearing on what happened, but I shall never know. She was a happy, healthy baby, growing steadily from her birth weight of 7lbs 4 oz.
One day when I fed her at midday, she immediately vomited it back, then fell asleep again. Strange, I thought. A hungry baby should be crying, but she wasn't. Just sleepy. The same thing happened each time I tried to feed her, and I became very worried indeed. In fact, almost right from the start, though in every other respect she seemed fine, I absolutely knew she wasn't. This was no longer the anxiety that afflicts all of us at times, it was an absolute, deep down conviction. I KNEW she was desperately ill, and when she vomited again at 5 pm, this time flecked with blood, I sought help. Luckily, our doctor lived only just down the road; we took Suzie to see him. He examined her, and could find nothing obviously wrong with her. He said he thought she had an infection of some kind, and didn't think it was serious, but to be safe we should take her to the Bristol Children's Hospital and let them check her out.
Before leaving for the few miles' drive, I took Suzie home to change her, and here is the next clue. I was feeling horribly guilty that my baby was ill, as if it was somehow my fault, and when I changed her nappy, I noticed that her little bottom was completely smooth and very pale. I didn't realise the significance at the time - my only thought was that the doctors would know she was well looked after because there was no sign of nappy rash. In fact, that unnaturally pale bottom was a sign that her white blood cells were all up, fighting the infection.
At the Children's Hospital, the doctor who examined Suzie told us that he found the same as our GP - nothing obviously seriously wrong, but they would keep her in overnight to keep an eye on her, and we would probably be able to come and collect her in the morning. That doctor's decision, without a doubt, saved Suzie's life. When I rang the hospital next morning it was to be told that the infection had developed at about 11 pm the previous night, and my baby was now critically ill.
We hightailed down to Bristol to find Suzie lying naked in a cubicle with all the windows open - this was mid-October - because it was imperative her temperature was lowered. There were tubes everywhere, and she had been started on a wide range of antibiotics as the infection had not yet been identified. They could give us no reassurances as to the prognosis. For more than two weeks we did not know whether she would live or die, and it would be much longer before we could ascertain whether she had suffered any brain damage, blindness, or loss of hearing.
It was six weeks before Suzie left hospital. The nurses were the ones who saw her first smile - "We all love Suzie", they said. "She's such a happy baby". (Those were the days before parents could stay with a sick child, though we could visit - and did - any time). The nightmare was not quite over - Suzie had to return to hospital on two occasions before her first birthday - and the drugs she had been given had made her allergic to milk. She had to be fed with a powdered product which, to me, tasted absolutely vile, but was the only food she could - or would! - have. Weaning her off it was a huge problem. But she was not only alive, but healthy, thanks to the prompt medical attention she received. Had my GP told me to take her home and see how she was in the morning instead of having her admitted to hospital, I'm sure it would have been a very different story.
Today, Suzie is a mother, teacher, swimming teacher, and triathlete. A miracle, who was saved in an age when meningitis had little or no publicity - thanks, mainly, to her doctors. But also because I recognised that my awful gut feeling was right. There's a huge difference between worrying, even fearing, and that KNOWING that will not be denied. If you feel that KNOWLEDGE - act on it. I did, and I'm sure it helped to save my child's life.
My two lovely daughters - Suzie is on the left.