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The way it was; Valerie's TB meningitis story

30th July 2023

We received a lovely letter which we wanted to share with you. It came from 81-year-old Valerie, who lives in Cornwall, and recalled her remarkable TB meningitis experience from 70 years ago

Valerie TB meningitis age 11

Her story illustrates, then as now, the importance of a quick and accurate diagnosis of meningitis and receiving the right treatment

“Reading so much about the meningitis vaccine for all children you may be interested in my experience of this dreadful disease.

“I am a Cornish fisherman’s daughter, aged 81 years of age. Seventy years ago, at the age of 11, I was at the seaside with my parents and siblings. It was a beautiful, sunny, warm day in June 1947. In those days, the sewers went straight out into the sea.

“That night I was taken ill, with headaches and flu-like symptoms. The family doctor was sent for. He thought it was polio at first. The following morning two doctors called and TB meningitis was diagnosed.

In and out of consciousness

“I was taken to Truro City Hospital and my parents stayed at my bedside all night. As the day wore on I drifted in and out of consciousness and slipped into a coma.

“Then the drug Streptomycin was only available at two hospitals – Bristol or London. My parents chose London, as I had two elder sisters living up there.

“I was taken overnight by train, accompanied by a doctor and a nurse. I can remember a police motorcyclist escorting the ambulance from Paddington to Whittington Hospital, in Highgate, North London.

‘Danger Ward – No Admittance’

“For the first three months I was admitted behind a door marked ‘Danger Ward – No Admittance’. There were three of us in the isolation ward. We were deemed to be in a critical condition and the hospital chaplain administered the last rites, as I was not expected to last the night.

“The lumbar punctures were very painful. I was put on a table no wider than an ironing board. My knees were screwed right up to touch my chin, to make the spine stick out, so the doctor could inject directly into my spine.

“During the following week I made a remarkable recovery, much to the medical staff's surprise. I was moved to another larger ward, with nine other children.

‘Large darning needle’

“My thighs and upper arms were black and blue from the four daily injections of Penicillin. When we saw the nurse coming carrying the ‘large darning needle’, we would choose a place on our arms that wasn’t bruised for our next injection.

“The nurses had frilly cuffs and starched hats and each ward had a matron. During the summer months they used to put our beds out on the balcony for fresh air and a welcome change of view.

“Alan was 10 and had been in hospital for many months before our beds were put next to each other. I was the eldest in the ward and I was the boss. We read at night and would flick comics across to one another, as Alan could get out of bed, but I couldn’t.

“I was given a writing case by my sister as a parting present before she left for Australia. I still own and treasure it today.

Help the nurses

“I couldn’t sit still and was trying to walk by myself, so I used to help the nurses make beds and they taught me how to make the hospital corners on the beds – until I fell and was told off.

“We used to make swabs which were then sterilised and used in the operating theatres in other parts of the hospital.

“My mum went home for the funeral of my grandmother and my sister’s wedding. In the wedding photos you could see the strain my mum must have suffered, but she never complained.

“My elder sister and my niece were at home, looking after my dad. My dad had to return to Cornwall as he was a self-employed fisherman.

Exception to the rules

“My mum stayed with me most of the time, as she was able to stay with my elder sisters and visiting times were relaxed for her because we came from such a distance. In those days the train took eight hours and cost a pretty penny, so an exception was made to the strict rules.

“I had my 12th birthday in hospital, with a special birthday dinner.

"Mary was my best friend at school. She would copy my maths homework and we would both get told off when I got it wrong. We wrote letters home to our school-friends and my friendship with Mary survived and lasted a lifetime, until she sadly passed suddenly last year. We received lots of letters back and piles of presents and books from the school at Christmas.

“Alan was getting better and was supposed to be going home the next day. When I woke the bed was empty and upon asking where he was I was told he had passed over during the night.

“Of the nine children in my ward, two from my original ward, one left hospital profoundly deaf and the other with a right arm paralysis.

Strong will and constitution

“The others were still in when I came home. I was the only one lucky enough to recover and emerge relatively unscathed with just a slight hearing impediment in my right ear.

“This miraculous recovery was put down to my strong will and even stronger constitution, all 4 feet 10 inches of me! I might be little but I won’t be put by.

“When I was first able to get out of bed I was not able to stand or walk, as my muscles had wasted. I had to learn to walk again. The physiotherapy involved clenching a marble underneath the toes and passing it to the other foot without dropping it. This was most difficult. We practised walking between bars, which was also difficult.

“When my physiotherapy was complete and I was able to walk I was ready to go home on 17 January 1948, after seven and a half months in Whittington Hospital.

Back to school

“I went back to school a month after leaving hospital, having missed a year’s schooling. A year later I went back to Whittington Hospital for a final lumbar puncture and examination, to check all was well.

“The NHS began in 1946 and Dr Killen, our family GP, kindly waived his fees. When Dr Killen visited my dad would pour him a large whisky. My dad would often say, "Without the NHS and Dr Killen’s kindness you would not be here".

“Dr Killen continued as our family doctor for the next 20 years, until my son Alan went to grammar school. He always used to call me his miracle patient, although it was his quick wits and accurate diagnosis that was the real miracle.

“Streptomycin definitely saved my life. Although it was used by two hospitals I think it was only discovered a few months before I was taken ill.

“Thanks to this drug I have been able to have a wonderful married life and have been able to experience the joys of having children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

“Though I was a little deaf in my right ear I didn’t have hearing aids until the age of 72.

“I hope this letter will be of interest to you as it shows how it was seven decades ago.”

(below) Valerie 70 years on

Valerie TB meningitis age 11