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Isabelle's story

10th February 2015

Manchester Evening News columnist Ray King described his own family's anguish when his granddaughter Isabelle fell ill with one of the deadliest strains of meningitis

Isabelle's story

"For such a pretty little girl, my granddaughter Isabelle has an odd fascination with trains - probably stemming from having a ride on a steam railway in Devon during the summer.

I pushed her out for a walk two weeks before Christmas, but as the Pendolinos sped through our local station, she huddled down in her buggy against the cold and paid them little heed. She hadn't been eating very well either and was generally out of sorts with the seasonal snuffles. Her afternoon nap was a lengthy one.

That night the sickness kicked in with a vengeance. Her temperature soared to 103f and from 2am she vomited every hour. A week short of 19 months old, she could keep nothing down for more than a few seconds."

Isabelle's mum and dad, Julia and Oliver, secured an appointment at the emergency doctor's the next morning, by which time she had developed a blotchy rash from head to toe. Her temperature had not abated and constant vomiting had left her weak and dehydrated.

The doctor seemed satisfied that the rash disappeared when a glass was rolled over the skin - the much-publicised test for meningitis. A viral infection was diagnosed and anti-sickness medicine prescribed. But Isabelle's condition worsened as she became weaker.

Hospital straight away

The following morning, Julia took Isabelle to her own GP. "I am sure you will not be surprised," he said, "that she has got to go into hospital straight away."

Staff at Stepping Hill Hospital's children's department moved swiftly. Though Isabelle's rash had gone down to small raised pinpricks at the base of her spine, they now remained visible when rubbed.

"One of the nurses said they thought she had meningitis," Julia said. "I burst into tears; she gave me a hug and said not to worry, Isabelle was in good hands."

Within half an hour of arriving at hospital, Isabelle had been injected with large amounts of antibiotics and was attached to a heart monitor and an intravenous drip through her little foot. As the needles went in her arms, as the blood samples were taken and the catheter was applied to her foot she didn't cry or even flinch; the little girl was virtually lifeless. She was spared the possibility of a lumbar puncture only because she was so poorly.

The result of the first blood test suggested she had contracted meningococcal septicaemia, one of the most dangerous strains of meningitis. Four days later the result of the second test confirmed the condition.

Out of danger

The next day, though still weak and unable to sit up, Isabelle's temperature at last began to come down. Hospital staff indicated that she was out of danger and 24 hours further on, propped up by pillows, she clapped her hands when she saw her dad with a round of toast - then ate the whole piece.

She was clearly on the mend when we went to see her that night. Though Isabelle quickly tired and was still slightly disorientated by the painkillers prescribed for one of her treatment's more bizarre side effects - arthritic type pain - she was tucking into chips and beans and called out with glee when she saw us.

Her improvement continued. The hospital's Santa and his elves called and gave her a little toy train and by Saturday she was home. A week to the day, the nightmare was over, though for some days, Isabelle was weak on her feet, reaching for your hand when she wanted to walk. But her Christmas present of a doll's buggy soon saw her scooting around the house again.

Extraordinarily lucky

In retrospect Isabelle was extraordinarily lucky, for the statistics are grim. Only some 30 per cent of patients with meningococcal septicaemia make a complete recovery. My granddaughter, mercifully, is one of them, thanks in no small part to the magnificent treatment she received at Stepping Hill. Around a fifth die; many others survive but suffer complications.

Spotting the symptoms early is crucial, but this is a disease that mimics other conditions and the glass test is not definitive. Vomiting, high temperature, sleepiness and non-feeding can also be pointers.

But probably the most terrifying thought is that Isabelle, in all likelihood, caught the potential killer from one of us who love her most; perhaps me. Her mum and dad, my wife and I, our daughter, her fiancé and Isabelle's uncle were put on a high dosage two-day course of antibiotics, all of us having spent sustained time with her. The bacterium lies harmless in many people's throats only to strike at random, maybe after a kiss and a cuddle.

The possible consequences of such natural act of affection are beyond imagination.