A mum-of-two is raising awareness of the symptoms of viral meningitis after her daughter contracted the potentially fatal illness at just five months old.
Nicki Allen, a paramedic from Huddersfield, first noticed that something was wrong with little Emma in October 2015, when she didn’t wake up one morning.
‘She normally wakes up quite early, about 6am, and I had to go and wake her up at 9am because I needed to take my son to nursery at 9:15am,’ she explains. ‘I checked on her, she was still breathing but she was in a really deep sleep. Once I’d woken her up she was awake for half an hour, 45 minutes, and then she was asleep again, and she slept most of the morning.’
Later that day, Nicki, her husband, their four-year-old son Max and Emma were driving to Newcastle to visit friends, but an hour into the journey, Emma began to appear extremely distressed.
Emma was just five months old when she developed viral meningitis
‘”Isn’t she doing a strange cry?”‘ Nicki asked her husband at the time. ‘It was whiny and high-pitched, it wasn’t her usual cry at all.’
Realising that Emma was coming down with something, Nicki administered Calpol and did her best to keep her cool, but still she wouldn’t settle.
‘She was crying all the time and wanted to be held, but every time we moved her position, she was crying. It was a pain cry, you could tell it was a different cry, and she looked really distressed.’
At around 10pm, Nicki went to change her daughter’s nappy, and realised that the skin on her chest and stomach looked blotchy.
‘Being a paramedic, I always tend to overreact, because I’m so afraid of ever missing something, so I decided to take her to the local walk-in centre at the hospital,’ she says.
The doctor who saw the family acknowledged that Emma had a high temperature, and noted that her soft spot was raised, firm and bulging – a symptom that even Nicki had never heard of as being significant before. He sent them to the hospital ‘just in case’, and it was there that Emma was diagnosed with viral meningitis.
‘I was so shocked and terrified that I actually burst out laughing,’ Nicki admits. ‘Afterwards I thought “what I am laughing at?!”, but it was just the pure shock of it. After a few seconds I was just thinking “oh my god, this is really serious”.’
Emma was given a lumbar puncture, which Nicki chose not to be in the room for: ‘I’d seen babies have it done before, through work, and I knew it would be worse if I was in the room with her so I chose not to go.’
‘They kept her on antibiotics and regular pain relief and medications for her temperature. She slept most of the time from then, because her pain was under control; again, she just wanted to be held.’
Emma, now almost two, had to stay in isolation for five days
‘I’ve heard from a lot of adults that have had viral meningitis that it’s the worst headache they’ve ever had in their life, so I felt pretty awful knowing that she’d been like that for most of the day. We were lucky that we went quite early to get treatment, it came on so quickly.’
When viral meningitis occurs in a child younger than one, there is a chance of neurological damage, and Emma had to undergo regular checks for six months after her initial discharge to ensure that she was hitting her milestones. She is now fit and healthy, but does still get regular headaches, which Nicki thinks could be a side effect of her experience with meningitis: ‘There are times when she holds her head and says “ouch!” Residual headaches are quite common, but it’s hard to tell. When she gets older it’ll be easier to understand.’
Nicki, meanwhile, is determined to make sure that all parents know the sign of viral meningitis – not just the high temperature, mottled skin, headaches, dislike of bright lights and a stiff neck that are more commonly present on symptom lists, but also the bulging soft spot that Emma demonstrated at the peak of her illness.
The Allen family are now doing all they can to raise awareness of viral meningitis symptoms
‘I’m also doing a lot of fundraising this year to raise money for Meningitis Now – I remember Googling viral meningitis when we were in the hospital and it was one of the first pages that came up,’ she says.
‘I want to raise £500 for them, so I’ve got three separate 10k runs, a Tough Mudder, and the Great North Run. My son Max is doing the Great North Mile too, and Emma’s doing the Great North Toddler Dash which is just a short distance – I’m trying to get them all involved!’
‘It’s also massively opened my eyes about how I assess kids when I’m at work. I’ve been a paramedic for over seven years now, and I always tend to err on the side of caution – if a parent is telling me their child is unwell, then that’s enough for me to take them to hospital, even if I can’t find a cause.’
‘The parents know their child know best, so if they say something’s not right, I’m not going to leave them at home – and when I go to work and I come across parents with young kids, I always make sure that they know what to look out for.’