Helen’s and Richard's stories

11th November 2014

In early 2001 the lives of two sets of families in Chester took on a cruel and tragic parallel when their teenage children, who had grown up together, were both killed by meningococcal disease


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Cruel and tragic parallel

Helen Cadden, 18, and 19-year-old Richard Murphy, who had attended St Werburgh's & St Columba's Primary School together since the age of 4, had grown up together and become friends. They both moved on to Chester Catholic High School and then university took them to different parts of the country when Helen moved to Sheffield Hallam University to study Business Studies and Richard attended University College London, to read Philosophy.

The two new students had spent just three months at university and both were excelling on their courses, making new friends and enjoying the social life that university brings.

Helen's story

Helen's mum Anne reflects: "Helen was the type of girl that everyone got on with, she was known for being helpful, considerate and friendly. She had settled in so well at university and was on great form when we all spent Christmas and New Year together. She was telling us how much she was enjoying her course and how well everything was going."

On 6 January, 2001, after the Christmas break, Helen's parents drove her back to university, so she could prepare for the new term and her first batch of exams on the following Monday. On the Sunday Helen had spoken to her family and friends on the phone as she was excitedly planning her 19th birthday celebration, which was due to take place later that month.

Feeling unwell

That night, in her halls of residence, Helen started to feel unwell with a fever, vomiting and aching bones. She contacted the resident warden at midnight and asked for a doctor. University staff phoned the out of hours GP service but their doctor did not visit. He diagnosed Helen over the phone as having flu-like symptoms. Helen's friends stayed with her until the early hours of Monday.

Arrangements were made by University staff to phone Helen first thing in the morning to see how she was feeling. They did phone Helen at 9am but got no response. An assumption that Helen had gone to her exam was made and her room was not checked.

Slipping away

No-one saw Helen that morning until a flatmate found her at lunchtime extremely ill and incoherent in the corridor of the flat. Her critical state was eventually recognised and an ambulance called. Helen's friends who were with her believe that Helen stopped breathing as the ambulance arrived at the accommodation and she was declared dead minutes later by the paramedics.

She had been ill for less than 15 hours and her family only knew what had happened when the police came to their house later in the day and informed them of Helen's death. A six-day Inquest was held and a number of issues with the medical, university and ambulance service systems were raised in the Coroner's report.

Helen left three brothers who thought the world of her. "She was the life and soul of the house and the boys adored her, she was the only girl and they loved her so much," said Anne.

"It's a terrible disease and can affect people so quickly. Despite all the awareness, the symptoms are still being missed. The key is to get medical professionals, universities, parents, students - everyone - to be more aware of what to look out for. Parents know their children so if they are particularly unwell with any of the symptoms, they need to act quickly and insist that their child is treated with antibiotics.

"I would never want any parent to go through what we all went through. The circumstances were just so awful. However, the only real long-term solution is to find a vaccine for Group B Meningitis."

Helen died of meningococcal septicaemia on Monday, 8 January and longstanding friend Richard Murphy attended her funeral and did a reading. Tragically, seven weeks later, Richard himself became a victim of this horrific disease too.

Richard's story

In February 2001 he was back at university and was feeling unwell. On 22 February, he called his parents saying that he had “never felt so ill in my life”. His limbs ached from head to toe and he suffered from a severe headache. A few hours later, his parents, Cathy and Paul Murphy, called up his halls of residence to see how he was feeling. His condition was getting worse.

The hall secretary had offered to call an ambulance but Richard had wanted to wait for the doctor as he did not want too much fuss. The university doctor came out to see him after his surgery was finished and diagnosed tonsillitis and gastro-enteritis. Later on that evening Richard's condition deteriorated rapidly and he called a Locum GP who immediately diagnosed him with having meningitis.

Admitted to hospital 

Richard had even prepared himself for the news that it might be meningitis, having recently experienced Helen's death and funeral. The doctor advised Richard to call a blue light ambulance which he did but because no ambulance was available, Richard and a friend walked to the nearby University College Hospital.

The receptionist at A & E placed Richard in the 'minors' waiting room instead of the 'majors' area as they did not have a triage system working because they said everyone came in by ambulance, so he and his friend had to wait for a few hours until they saw a doctor.

The moment that Richard saw the doctor he requested for the light in the room to be turned off due to his agonising headache and sensitivity to light. No sooner was this done than Richard collapsed on the floor.

In a critical condition

Cathy, his mother, said: "We got a phone call from Richard's university asking us to get on the next train to the hospital as his condition was critical. But by the time we got there it was too late."

The hospital transferred him to the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery where they kept him alive with antibiotics on a life support machine for three days, until 26 February, because Richard held a donor card.

Cathy said: "It is vitally important to find a vaccine; we all need a vaccine to help put an end to these repeating tragedies. Time is of the essence - too many lives have been lost. Raising the awareness of the symptoms is crucial. It is my view that the doctors need to know more about how to diagnose meningitis too.

“There were four inquiries into Richard's death and one inquest - the verdict from the inquest of gross medical negligence - will always live with me. His life could have been saved; the results revealed that if he was only given the correct diagnosis right from the very beginning, there would be a 95% chance that he could still be alive."

Cathy continued: "I had heard about Meningitis Now through the Cadden family, as I knew they had been a great source of support and information to them. The charity's Chief Executive, Steve Dayman, who lost his son Spencer to meningitis and meningococcal septicaemia in 1982, came to see me after my husband died on Boxing Day. The whole team at Meningitis Now have really helped with providing information, supporting our fundraising events and helping drive the search for a vaccine forward."


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