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Kirstin's story

1st February 2023

You may have recently read Alice’s story here; a university student who contracted meningitis in the aftermath of the covid pandemic

Kirstin's story

As we often say here at Meningitis Now, meningitis can affect you directly and indirectly.

With that in mind, we are extremely grateful to Alice’s friend Kirstin for sharing her recollection of that time as we rarely have the opportunity to tell someone's story from two sides. She does so here in her own words.

“It had been a very hectic week for all of us. Exams at the beginning of the week, back-to-back pub and club to celebrate after, and a festival on Saturday. Everyone was naturally exhausted, which is why when I saw Alice on Monday, I wasn’t overly concerned about her expressing how tired she was.

“After we had met for coffee, a catch up, and a bit of shopping, I hopped on the train to Glasgow, where I was staying at my friend’s house for the next two nights.

“It wasn’t until the Wednesday that I really heard anything else. Alice texted me in the afternoon saying that she felt exhausted and couldn’t get out of bed, but again, I didn’t think this was much to worry about - nothing that a day in bed watching Netflix couldn’t sort. I sent her instructions on how to order food from the JMCC bar to your room so she could have a proper lazy day in bed, then went on with my day, still not thinking this was anything particularly concerning.

Kirstin's story

More serious than anticipated

“At around 8pm I sent her a text asking how she was feeling. At 9, while I was on the train back to Edinburgh, I received the one-line response, “I’m in hospital lol”.

“Immediately I replied asking if she would like me to come accompany, but she quickly brushed it off and deemed it unnecessary - no one had realised yet how serious it could be. Throughout the train journey I was texting her asking why she went in, she said a rash; although that did ring some alarm bells, I still did not exactly understand that it could possibly be anything more than just a reaction to working and partying a bit too hard.

“I’m not sure what it was exactly that made me decide that I should go to the hospital, I think maybe it was just the tone of Alice’s texts that started to ignite a feeling of panic in me, and consider that maybe, this was actually something to worry about.

“I called my mum and told her what I was doing, telling her about how Alice had been feeling exhausted for a while and had found a rash all over her body. Immediately she said, that sounds like meningitis. Though Alice had texted me not long before saying the doctors suspected just a viral infection, so despite having all the symptoms, I continued to believe that there was no way it was meningitis.

Friends gather at A&E

“I arrived at the hospital at around 11pm, accompanied by my flatmate Orla. We spoke to the lady on the desk in A&E and were told it would be at least an hour until we could see her as she hadn’t even been seen by a doctor yet. At 12, I checked again, and got told it would be another hour. Alice was still texting at this point and told me that she thought she would be in overnight, so I should go home. But there was no way I was going to leave without seeing her. I headed back to our halls to pick up a bag of items that I thought might be helpful if she was staying the night - a hairbrush, phone charger, deodorant, clean underwear, etc. At 2.30am, Orla and I arrived back at the hospital and finally were told we could see her. We hurried over to the door that led us into the A&E ward, looking through the windows and knocking frantically to try and get the attention of the nurses who would let us in.

“That was when we first saw her. Lying still on a bed in the middle of the hallway.

Alice's story

“My heart dropped. I had never seen anyone look so unwell in my life, let alone one of my best friends. As we walked over, waving to catch her attention, the most she could do was slowly turn her head and blink to tell us that she knew we were there.

“Her face was completely yellow and green, and her eyes were half shut. She was so weak that she couldn’t speak and could hardly move. I realised why she hadn’t been returning my texts for the past few hours - she did not even have the strength to pick up her phone.

“I asked if she had been given any pain medication, to which she responded with a very small, and clearly painful, nod. I then asked if it had helped at all, though I did not even need to watch her subtly shake her head to realise they hadn’t.

“About ten minutes after we sat down with her, she started rubbing her hands together in a slightly concerning way, I asked if there was a problem with them and she then said the only two words I heard her say the entire time I was there, “Can’t feel”. I began to panic, double checking that she was trying to tell me she couldn’t feel her hands, to which she gave a weak nod. I went to find a doctor, speaking to three different people before I finally found someone who would listen and told me that he would notify the doctor who had been looking at Alice previously.

“The hospital was very busy, so it took almost an hour for the doctor to finally come over. When he did, he asked Alice to try and squeeze his hand, which, although very weakly, she managed to do. He then asked her to stick out her tongue. It was at this point that I had to look away, due to the fear of breaking down, as she couldn’t muster up the strength to do this.

“Orla was much more composed than I was, and asked the doctor if we could have any information about what they thought it could be; he told us that test results wouldn’t be in until the morning, and that he would be back to tell us any information he had in the next few hours - however, I never saw him again during the time I was there.

“When he left, he told Alice to try and get some rest and sleep, but her muscles were in so much agony that she was completely restless, and with every adjustment she made to try and find some comfort, she would let out a painful groan. Orla and I asked the doctor to lower her hospital bed so that she could lie flat, in hopes that this would be slightly more comfortable.

“About 20 minutes later, a nurse came over and told us that she was finally going to be moved into a room after hours of lying in a hospital bed in the middle of the hallway next to another unwell older man. Orla and I gave each other a very concerned look when we realised they were rolling her bed into the “Isolation Room”.

Things were beginning to feel very real, and very scary

“Almost immediately after getting in there she started to throw up but was still so weak that she couldn’t even properly sit up, so was only roughly aiming for the cardboard bucket they had given her. Subsequently, her hospital robe, the bed, and even her Percy pig stuffed toy were hit by yellow bile.

“Orla and I quickly notified the nurses who then changed her sheets and robe. After this, she fell back asleep for the next couple hours. I was so on edge that every few minutes I would stand up and check that she was still breathing, just in case. At around 5am she started to cough, which immediately sparked panic, I ran over to her and tried to lift her up to a sitting position to make sure she didn’t choke if she was going to throw up, but her body was too weak to sit up and she fell straight back down into the bed. I tried to at least turn her face to the side, and soon after, she began to throw up again. I held the sick bowl as she vomited a dark green/black coloured bile, something I had never seen before. Orla ran out to notify the nurses again, and this time after replacing the sick bowl, they decided to inject her with some anti-sickness medication.

“Throughout this whole process she was barely conscious. Anytime she would need the toilet, I would have to guess through her body language and wait for her to indicate a yes by simply blinking her eyes when I asked. I would then have to go get a nurse, who would try and help her out of bed, while she would groan in pain, guide her to the makeshift toilet and then lift her back onto the bed after.

“Anytime this would happen Orla and I would leave the room, trying to allow her to keep as much dignity as possible when in a situation like that.

“At 5.30am, I realised that Alice’s mum, Sarah, probably hadn’t heard from her in a while and would be understandably worried. Alice had texted me earlier on in the night that Sarah was going to come up first thing the next morning, so I had a feeling she would be awake. I called and woke up my own mum and asked her to try and find Sarah’s number, 5 minutes later she sent it to me and immediately I sent over a text with any information I knew at the time. Sarah instantly replied and asked to call me. On the phone, I replayed everything that I had been told - that earlier in the night they had told Alice it was probably a viral infection, and that the nurses had told me to go home, as after she is moved into the AMU (Acute Medical Unit), visitors would have to book.

The next morning

“At around 6.30am, after some convincing by the nurses that Alice was in good hands, Orla and I headed back to halls. The second I stepped into the uber however, I felt an immense guilt for leaving, because previously, it had been us who had to tell the nurses when anything was happening, or when Alice needed anything.

“I only managed about three hours of sleep when I got back, as I wasn’t able to shake the upsetting image of her in that hospital bed out of my head, along with the images of the other dozens of unwell people we saw in the A&E ward.

“At around 10.00am, I was on the phone with Sarah again, who said she was on her way to the hospital. This gave me a feeling of relief, as I know that if I were in that position, my parents would be the first people I’d be looking for.

“Though even so, I spent the rest of the day worrying, waiting on texts, and on the verge of tears due to stress. When I finally got the text in the afternoon confirming that it was in fact meningitis, a wave of anxiety hit me. The realisation that it was actually something deadly, not just a bad virus or the effects of partying too hard, was like a slap in the face.

“This whole experience was a wakeup call to so many people. Although we are briefly told about the dangers of meningitis before coming to university, I don’t think anyone really listens, as it seems so rare and far-fetched. I think as teenagers and young adults, many of us feel quite invincible, and the pandemic has probably played a role in inflating this idea.

“But the threat of meningitis is not something to be trivialised.

“However, it is important to note that I am in the privileged position of simply retelling what I had witnessed. Yes, it is absolutely heart-breaking to see a loved one like that, but it is hundreds of times worse to be the one experiencing it all."