Meet 19-year-old me:
It’s 1999. 19-year old me is on my gap year in Australia and 100% focused on excitement, adventure and meeting boys! 19-year old me is having an absolute blast. 19-year old me is only dimly aware of the existence of meningitis and has never even heard of meningococcal septicaemia, the version of the disease that invades your blood, giving it an Access All Areas pass to wreak havoc in every cell in your body.
This is my story. I hope it helps raise awareness!
Sunday 20 June 1999, and Earlier: The Time of My Life
On Sunday 20 June 1999, I was in Noosa, on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. I had been in Australia for around four months and was three weeks into my Big Trip: Sydney to Cairns by bus, then a flight to Alice Springs for Ayers Rock, then overland to Darwin).
I had spent the previous three months temping in Sydney, and had fully adopted it as my new home. My office was in Milson’s Point, and my evenings were spent in the Kirribilli RSL (the ‘R-y’, everyone called it) drinking with colleagues. At weekends, when not visiting my various relatives, I explored the city by myself and fell in love with its urban, beachy cool.
I’d been on some minor excursions – Canberra, the Blue Mountains – but my dedication to the becoming a Sydneysider had made me rather comfortable. I had a membership card for the R-y, and I knew far too much about Australian TV. At work one day I heard myself say ‘thudy’ instead of ‘thirty’ and soon afterwards my Aussie accent was down pat. I loved Sydney so much I didn’t want to leave; but realising that my gap year would soon expire, I had forced myself to go to STA Travel and book my trip.
The day I left Sydney, I felt sad to leave my recently-cemented home (as well as ambivalent towards the newly-arrived Brits who formed most of my fellow travellers). But my mixed feelings didn’t last long. Within three weeks, I had tried sheep-shearing, gone horse-riding, panned for gold, attempted to surf, lingered barefoot far too long in Byron Bay, driven through Brisbane, partied in Surfer’s Paradise and done a skydive in Noosa.
(I had posted the video of my (uncharacteristically impulsive) skydive to my family as a surprise and sent them a teasing email, assuring them I was on a ‘massive high’ and they’d ‘soon find out why!’)
By this point, I was in an almost perpetual state of excitement – everything was just so much fun! Every location, every activity was new, and all accompanied by drinking and dancing and new best friends and boys! A seemingly endless map of good times stretched out ahead of me. Sailing in the Whitsundays! Cattle ranching in northern Queensland! Scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef! Kakadu! Why had no-one told me life could be like this before? I couldn’t believe I’d spent so much time in Sydney! I had mostly been an academic, obedient sort of teenager, and the concept of hedonism was entirely new to me.
I rarely thought about when my holiday would come to an end, but when I did, I caught hazy glimpses of Cambridge, as if through a mist. I had a place to start there in the October and I scarcely dared believe that all these good times would be capped by me going there. It was just excitement on excitement!
To get back to Noosa. The resort town had been beaches, adrenaline and partying with old friends and new. On Sunday 20 June 1999, I had spent the day sunbathing by myself.
I was by myself because of my somewhat haphazard approach to travel. My backpacking skills tended to oscillate between dreamily imagining the trip that lay ahead of me, and living hedonistically in the moment with my newfound backpacker friends. The prosaic details of where I would sleep, what I would eat and how I would get to my next stop only registered when they reached critical levels of importance. Consequently, I tended to stay in random hostels (wherever still had space when the Oz Experience bus unloaded us) and ate out more than I could afford. (Though to be nutritionally balanced, I carried around with me the makings for scrambled eggs on toast, a bag of carrots and a bottle of sweet chilli sauce, and felt very proud of myself).
My lack of organisation also meant that when I wanted to hop back on the Oz bus and head off to my next stop, I would inevitably find the bus was fully booked and would have to wait several days until the next available space. Thus it was that my Noosa buddies had long since departed, and I was left cooling my heels for a few extra days before jumping on the bus to my next destination: Hervey Bay – for Fraser Island!
Camping on Fraser Island was a part of the trip I had longed for before even leaving London. It had rainbow sands, dingoes and wild horses like in The Silver Brumby! I could barely contain my anticipation at what lay ahead.
Noosa was a small place. I vowed to learn my lesson and book my bus in good time in future. In the meantime, there was not much to do except lie back and work on one of my goals: getting seriously bronzed. I intended to arrive at Cambridge tanned! I envisioned a tanned-er, blonder, slimmer me walking alluringly through college, to curious glances at this worldly yet mysterious sophisticate. I had treated myself to a new halter-neck bikini from one of the surf shops in Byron Bay (the surfer/skater chic look was big back then) and I rather fancied myself in it. I put in a few solid hours on the beach.
(For the record, I’m still terrible at life admin. But if I’d been an organised human being, I might have been on Fraser Island on that Sunday, and I sure as hell wouldn’t be here to write this today. So it’s not a foible I can feel bad about (safe bet that no-one at work will read down this far)).
6pm on Sunday 20 June 1999: Just a 24 Hour Bug
At some time in the afternoon, I returned from my tanning mission to get ready for the evening. Koala Backpackers, the hostel where I was staying, had organised a big barbecue night and I had already bought my ticket. I was sharing a room with another girl and three guys – there were two sets of bunk beds and a single bed. I had one of the top bunks, and a newly arrived Irish guy had the bunk underneath me. Two Dutch guys had the other set of bunks and an American girl called Amanda had the single bed. Amanda worked at the hostel. The head end of my set of bunks abutted a kitchen sink unit and there was a separate en-suite shower and toilet. I had my shower, during which I had a good sing (Like a Virgin, if memory serves) and I emerged to much ribbing from my roommates. I remember looking at my little travel clock (one of many loving gifts ‘for your big trip’ from family members the previous Christmas): it said 6pm and I suddenly felt nauseous. It was like car sickness, not too terrible. I expected it to go away.
I got dressed and ready to go to the barbecue but the nausea persisted. I was annoyed: I had paid for my ticket! I hated the thought of it going to waste.
The back of my neck ached. The ache was exactly where my bikini had been tied; I’d experienced a similar sort of pain from tied-too-tightly halter-neck tops before. I supposed I must be feeling funny from lying in the sun, and that was exacerbating the pain.
I didn’t know a sore neck could be a symptom of meningitis.
I tried to ignore the nausea and headed to the bar where people were starting to gather for the barbecue. I got in the queue behind two blokes who were laughing and joking loudly about something. I think this is the point where if I was making a film of this story (or, you know, an episode of Doctors), a hint of sinister music would be introduced. I remember I found them unbearably irritating and rudely told them to be quiet – they responded with funny looks and eye rolls to each other, and part of me wanted to explain I was behaving completely out of character but it wasn’t something I could control.
I abandoned the queue and went up to the bar to get some water. I must have complained of feeling unwell as one of the bar staff offered to drive me to an out of hours doctor. My biggest worry was that I had the flu or something similar and I wouldn’t be able to go to Fraser Island as scheduled.
The out of hours doctor wasn’t very friendly. Maybe he’d had enough of backpackers. He told me I had a 24-hour bug and that I should take paracetamol, drink Gatorade and get some sleep. I felt enormously relieved that my Fraser Island trip wasn’t in jeopardy. I do remember that my legs had started to hurt at this point but it didn’t occur to me that this was worth mentioning. Everyone knows you get aches and pains with flu-type bugs.
I did as instructed by the doctor, and it seemed to bring immediate relief –I pulled on the oversized Wallace and Gromit T-Shirt I was using as a nightie, couldn’t be bothered to take my jeans off, and managed to fall asleep.
However, I awoke after what must have been no more than an hour, and vomited into the bowl I had carried up to my bunk. I could not stop vomiting. I heard some of my roommates come back from the bar. A second, rowdier wave of room mates (the Dutch guys) came back some time later. Lights went on, lights went off. As the night wore on, I vomited almost continuously. After several hours, my throat felt like a rusty cheese grater being scraped with rusty knives, and I was desperate for water. The kitchen sink was right behind my head – all I had to do was climb down and turn on the tap, but somehow I couldn’t move. After a long while, I managed to get down to the floor. I lay on the floor to rest. After another long while, I managed to crawl to the sink. Another rest and I dragged myself upright for some water, then straight back down on the floor again. The whole process must have taken hours. With no bowl, I forced myself to crawl to the toilet to be sick. Dawn was breaking, and in the dim grey light I could just make out a dark substance in the toilet bowl I knew was blood.
Monday 21 June 199, 6am: Mattress ride
I must have something really nasty, I remember thinking. It still didn’t cross my mind it could be anything serious. I lay on the tiled floor. One of the Dutch guys loomed in the doorway. ‘You need a doctor,’ he said sternly, ‘You’ve been being sick all night’. He leaned down and attempted to lift me up, but the pain of being touched was so acute I screamed out loud. I heard him go back to the dorm to confer with the other room mates. I made myself crawl back too and lay in the middle of the floor.
The hostel manager, a cheerful Brit, appeared in the doorway and asked the obvious question: ‘And she wasn’t drinking last night?’ My room-mates confirmed in the negative. It was decided I would be driven to a GP in the hostel minibus. ‘It’s not like home I’m afraid,’ the manager apologised cheerfully, ‘Doctors only come out to you if you’re at death’s door!’
While the manager went to bring the minibus round, my room-mates discussed their sickly companion. ‘I’ve never seen anyone like this before’, I heard Amanda say. Typical American, I thought, overly dramatic! I was convinced that all I needed was bed rest. It was hardly surprising that I felt terrible when I hadn’t slept. I clearly had a nasty bug and now I just needed to sleep it off. I had never had flu and I supposed this was what it was like.
Still unable to bear physical contact, I managed to slither onto a mattress and was carried out in state to the minibus. The men tried to slide the mattress down the central aisle but the aisle wasn’t quite long enough and the back door couldn’t close, so one of them crouched at the back and held the back door to stop me sliding out. I can still remember his slightly foolish grin – I mean, I was aware it was quite funny even then!
At the GP surgery, the hostel manager tried to persuade the doctor to come out and look at me in the bus, but was refused. The poor lads had to heft me once again, this time from bus to clinic.
Once inside, everything changed. The hostel people seemed to vanish and suddenly I was alone in a grey-white room with the doctor, an older, unsmiling man. He looked a little like a small, tanned Victor Meldrew to me. He took one look at me and gave me a shot of penicillin: the shot that would later be credited with saving my life. ‘How long have you had that rash?’ he asked (accusingly, it seemed to me) before calling an ambulance.
Rash? I looked down to inspect my arms, and was surprised to see them covered in splotches. The doctor was on the phone to the dispatcher ‘…and the worry is, it’s some sort of mening…’ I tried to remember what I knew about meningitis and rashes. My sole point of reference was a few minutes of a TV drama I had had happened to interrupt my mum watching some years earlier. A woman in a kitchen, holding a glass against her baby’s skin. ‘Meningitis,’ my mum had knowingly commented. If you held a glass against the rash and it didn’t go away, it was meningitis. I pressed my finger against a splotch. It seemed to stay where it was, but it was hard to tell with a finger. Or was it the other way round? Was it supposed to disappear ? I couldn’t remember. You needed a proper glass. Could adults even get meningitis? I gave up.
‘Have you ever had a serious illness before?’ The doctor was off the phone, and was simply watching me, it felt disapprovingly, waiting for the paramedics to arrive. This was the first time I understood that not going to Fraser Island was the least of my worries.
‘No’. An idea occurred to me: ‘Could it be malaria?’ I asked. The doctor perked up – ‘Have you been travelling in those tropical zones then?’ I hadn’t, but Chris, one of my recently-departed room-mates had – he had bragged incessantly about the number of times he had had malaria during his six months in the Solomon Islands. Perhaps I had caught malaria off him? (look, I was a teenage backpacker, not a medical expert). ‘No,’ the doctor slumped back down. ‘You couldn’t get it that way’.
The paramedics finally arrived to take me to Nambour General Hospital, about 45 minutes’ drive away (which is basically the equivalent of a 10 minute walk in the UK). ‘It’s almost like some kind of blood poisoning,‘ I heard one of them say as they carried me out to the ambulance (I remember the sun was blazing).
Blood poisoning – that was how Shane had died on Home and Away. He had cut himself on a knife while cutting up an apple and the wound had become infected. I racked my brain but I could not recall cutting myself. I hadn’t been eating any apples (who uses a knife to eat an apple in real life anyway?). I didn’t think that could be right.
In the ambulance, I heard the paramedics discuss when they would pull over and take my stats. Then I heard them decide they couldn’t afford to stop. I could feel my own breath slowing down. I knew I was fading. It dawned on me that I was going to be a Dead on Arrival. DOA. Inanely, the cover of a crime novel I’d once read called Dead on Arrival by Dorothy Simpson came into my head. To think this was how it all ended!
Monday 21 June 1999, mid-morning: ‘It’s like meningitis, but in the blood’
The next thing I knew, I was lying in the emergency room. I could hear noises, bustling, other patients. A doctor materialised by my side and introduced herself in an Irish accent. ‘I’m Dr Emer Eimhoff. ‘ I don’t recall her exact words, but from what she said next I understood that I had meningococcal septicaemia (‘It’s like meningitis, but in the blood’), that it was extremely serious, that they thought they’d caught it in time but on the other hand they might not have done and I might die. My next of kin was requested and I recited my home phone number. I heard Dr Eimhoff’s sombre voice explain the situation to my parents. It was around 2am in the UK.
(Sombre, stern, accusatory…at the time it felt like all these individuals disapproved of me. Now I understand they were just scared shitless).
The phone was held up to my ear. ‘Hi Cherbie! Hi Darling!’ my mum and dad sounded upbeat to me, and I thought they didn’t understand, as if I’d decided to surprise them with a phone call as a special treat, instead of waking them in the middle of the night with almost the worst news any parent can receive. I couldn’t muster the energy to explain the situation to them. I don’t recall what noises I made, but my parents had the impression I was not in compos mentis. I really believe I was! It’s just that by this stage, there was an unbridgeable gulf between my mind and my body.
The phone was taken away. Two young male Australian doctors came to put a tube in my chest. ‘Seems a shame to cut through Gromit!’ one of them said before slicing into my T shirt. He was demonstrating some new way of doing it to the other doctor, in that eager way that doctors have when they can’t quite conceal their excitement at trying some particular new technique.
Around this time, I (suddenly, it seemed) became aware that my legs were blazing with pain. Possibly my jeans, which would have concealed the worst of the rash, had just been cut off. My legs seemed to be cylinders of solid fire, the kind of agony that makes you writhe around, except I had not the strength to writhe. Instead, the pain seemed literally to be taking my breath away. I begged them to give me something for the pain. But they already had. ‘I’m really sorry, we’ve already given you the maximum dosage of morphine’.
After what seemed like forever, I was wheeled into a lift and spirited away to another part of the hospital. A different doctor in a mask loomed over me. He apologised for the mask, and even though I understood I was now a biochemical hazard who could kill anyone who came within inches of me, I liked that he had a kind voice. He explained that if my breathing didn’t improve he would have to ‘put me to sleep’.
‘Put me to sleep’…a memory of my brother Huw having surgery on his toe at the age of nine. When told he would be ‘put to sleep’, he thought in panic of what this means when a veterinary surgeon says it about your beloved pet. A funny family memory, but now I was sharing Huw’s panic! I thought I knew what being put to sleep meant, or did I?
The doctor was cutting off my bracelet. A hair-thin string of tiny beads I’d bought from a hippy shop in Byron Bay: the shop sold the beads in different colours, each colour corresponding to a particular wish, such as ‘Love’ or ‘Health’. At such point as the delicate bracelet broke under wear and tear and the beads scattered, your wish was supposed to come true. I had selected a rainbow of colours: ‘Your Heart’s Desire’. It won’t work, I thought, it won’t work if you just cut it off…
The doctor explained he was putting me to sleep. My breathing must have got worse then. This was it. I was about to die.
I thought dully of my family, so far away I was viewing them through the wrong end of a telescope. It sounds terrible to say I had no emotion, but I was in a state beyond emotion; too ill to emote, if you like.
The telescope scanned its inverted lens across all my achievements like a UCAS form viewfinder. The orchestra concerts I’d performed at the Royal Festival Hall, at the Tivoli, at Kilkenny Castle…the dancing show at the London Palladium…my offer from Cambridge…my Big Trip…I was content with what I’d done, I thought mechanically. I hadn’t had a grand love story, but then I was only 19 so I couldn’t really have been expected to. There would have been plenty of time for that. I’d done things the way I’d wanted to.
My calmness in the face of death took me by surprise and I had another inane flashback, this time to an A level French class the previous year. (This will sound terribly Sixth Formy, but come on, for a while there it looked like my final thoughts were going to be of Home and Away). We’d been studying l’Etranger and had got to the bit where Meursault is reflecting on his life while awaiting the guillotine, and decides that he doesn’t regret anything. ‘I did it My Way!’ I’d paraphrased loudly to the class (what an irritatingly little wit I must have been!). There’s a bit where he imagines is in a hollow tree looking up at a patch of blue sky. The image of the tree and the sky came to me and I felt a sudden sense of kinship for Meursault.