Column: Bacterial meningitis changed our lives

Journalist Lesley Stones shared this personal, heartfelt journey with Longevity magazine. Her partner Steve contracted bacterial meningitis and she writes about how this deadly virus changed their lives.

Sometimes you really wish you could turn back the clock, and other times perhaps that time will stand eternally still. This is that time….

I’m ­ finally ready to write about Steve. I’ve mentioned him before – he’s the man who thrilled me on my ­ first raunchy weekend for at least two decades. The man who kept me sane when my mother came to stay. The man who brought deep and precious love back into my life. In July, everything changed with a phone call. Don’t panic, a stranger’s voice said, but Steve is unconscious in hospital. I panicked. Four hours later, I was on a plane to Richard’s Bay, where he had gone on business.

Bacterial meningitis had been diagnosed before I boarded, and I cried the entire journey. A woman came to sit with me and silently held my arm, and that kindness of strangers made my cry even more. I sat with Steve for hours in ICU, holding him down as he writhed in agony. I talked to him endlessly, telling him I’m here, I love you, keep ­ fighting.

On the third day he opened his eyes and said “hello hello” and I melted in those beautiful, soft eyes I never thought I’d see again. As he recovered, we sat for hours holding hands, forehead to forehead, bewitched by each other. “I was scared I’d lost you,” I said. He had been scared too, and had thought of me constantly the night the meningitis struck. Then it all went terrifyingly wrong. Fluid on the brain.  A series of strokes inflicting brain damage. Paralysed down one side and spasms on the other. A ventilator and a tracheotomy. Days later, he drifted into consciousness and after a heart-wrenching moment of blankness, he recognised me. “Don’t give up,” I urged for the millionth time, and this time he shook his head slightly when I said it. Then, as the full impact of the strokes took hold, my beautiful man slipped back to being comatose. Still I urged him to ­fight, until I thought I saw the light go out of him. He’s in Milpark Hospital now, flown up in a Medi-jet and receiving wonderful care that’s helping him to ­ fight again.

I’m lucky that I work from home, so I’ve been at his side from day one. This is week 13. People say I’m brave for sitting with him three times a day, but I’m not brave; I’m on autopilot. How could I not be there? He wakes up and sometimes I know he sees me. He falls asleep, knowing I’m watching over him. Last weekend his eyes locked on me. Can you hear me, I asked, and he blinked. But everybody blinks. Can you wink, I asked. It took an effort, but he winked. I was astonished.

“Did you just wink?” I asked in disbelief, and he winked again! My heart nearly overflowed with love, and my eyes overflowed for real. Later I wondered if perhaps he wasn’t saying “hello” or “I’m back”. Maybe he was saying: “I know you’ve been here for me, but now I have to say goodbye.“ The doctors don’t expect a recovery, and by the time you read this, I’m afraid he will be gone. Yet I long for a miracle, and promise him I’ll be there with him as long as he is here with me.

Steve hasn’t had the easiest life, and I’ve had tough times too. I lost my ­ first husband in a motorbike accident 18 months after the agony of our marriage meltdown. For Steve and me to have found such deep love at this stage in life was unbelievably exquisite, and losing it is unspeakably cruel.

When we made love, one of us would start to giggle, then we’d both laugh out loud with sheer, unbridled joy. No other man has ever made me laugh like that. We were limpets, we joked, glued together by each others wonderful adoration. And now I’m stroking his unfeeling hand for hours and scared of a future without him.

Wha’s the point of telling you this story? There is no point. Except that some things are too painful to bear alone.

LL Editor note::

Since this column was published in Longevity magazine, Steve’s health has improved and Lesley provided us with this update.

“I’m with Steve now, feeding him ice cream and helping him remember how to hold a teaspoon. Steve made it! He’s in his wheelchair now in a frail care center, reaching for me with his one good arm as I type. The breakthrough came on September 19 when, after weeks in a coma, he winked at me. That’s when I knew his brain was still in there, trapped inside a broken body.  Progress has been quite rapid, but never certain. Some days he’s up, other days he’s flat and lethargic. But he’s a man recovering from strokes, not a man dying from meningitis. There’s still a very long way to go before he talks and walks, and some people doubt he ever will. But Steve and I are working towards that goal. I’ve promised my brave, strong, wonderful man that I’m going to bring him home.”

What is Bacterial Meningitis?

According to Web MD bacterial meningitis is an extremely serious illness that requires immediate medical care. If not treated quickly, it can lead to death within hours or lead to permanent damage to the brain and other parts of the body.

Bacterial meningitis is caused by any one of several bacteria. Neisseria meningitidis or “meningococcus” is common in children and young adults, and Streptococcuspneumoniae or “pneumococcus” is another common cause in children and adults. Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) was a common cause of meningitis in infants and young children until the Hib vaccine was introduced for infants. Neisseria meningitidis and Streptococcus pneumoniae account for most of the bacterial meningitis cases in the U.S. Vaccines are available for both Neisseria meningitidis and Streptococcus pneumoniae. They’re recommended for all children and adults at special risk.

The bacteria can spread from person to person through coughing and sneezing. If you are around someone who has bacterial meningitis, contact your health care provider to ask what steps you need to take to avoid infection.