SCHOOLGIRL Fiona Yelland lay in intensive care, machines bleeping beside her bed and a ventilator tube down her throat helping her breathe, while baffled medics desperately tried to find out what was wrong.
Test after test had been carried out since the 15-year-old had arrived, dazed and desperately ill, at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary’s accident and emergency unit.
Now, fighting for her life in intensive care in an induced coma with her frightened family by her side, the puzzle surrounding precisely what was going on was still no nearer being solved.
The George Watson’s College pupil had been perfectly alright just an hour or so earlier. Walking between classes, laughing with friends, everything was fine apart from a niggling tingle that started in her foot and then moved up her legs to her waist.
Within 20 minutes, the strange “pins and needles” sensation had reached her face leaving her struggling to speak properly.
By the time the school’s quick-thinking matron Liz Reid had summoned an ambulance, Fiona was confused and so agitated that she had tried to fight her way out the vehicle’s doors and escape.
She was sick, that much was clear. But no-one could have guessed that she’d be left fighting for life all because of a missing tooth.
“It’s a bit of a blur,” says Fiona, recalling her rapid decline into a rare form of life-threatening oral meningitis. “I remember making my way to music class and getting this feeling of pins and needles in my feet and it moving up my legs to my waist.
“It went away, then came back, up my spine, over the top of my head so it felt like I was wearing a tight cap. Everything seemed ‘fuzzy’.”
Hospital staff sedated her to keep her calm and flooded her with antibiotics and antiviral medication, hoping that something would help stabilise her and buy them time as they battled to find out what was going on.
Eventually, a week after she had first fallen ill, they traced her unusual condition to an abscess she’d had earlier in the gum around the site of her missing front tooth.
“I knocked out my front tooth about five years ago,” recalls Fiona, now 16. “I fell out of bed and hit it against something. Some of the tooth was still there, I’d had root canal treatment and eventually I was going to have a tooth implant. I’d had trouble with abscesses but nothing really major. So finding out that it was bacteria associated with my tooth that caused meningitis was a bit of a surprise.”
Indeed, few could even have associated Fiona’s symptoms that day last October with the traditional signs of meningitis such as headache, stiff neck and spotty rash.
It was down to the quick actions of matron Reid that Fiona even survived.
“We can’t thank her enough,” says Fiona’s mum, Alison. “Doctors told us that if she had told Fiona to just go and lie down, maybe sleep for a while, she’d have probably have died.”
Alison was at work as a speech therapist when she received a call from the school warning her that her daughter was suddenly poorly. “Fiona’s suffered from migraine headaches in the past. So when matron said her speech had gone I thought it might be that,” she recalls.
“I said I’d come and get her and jokingly added that if there was any change in her condition, just dial 999.
“I was just driving up to the school when my phone rang with matron saying ‘We’ve called 999 and an ambulance is on its way’.”
Fiona’s condition had deteriorated rapidly. Now she was unable to form coherent sentences or answer basic questions. “She very quickly collapsed,” recalls Alison. “She would be sick, get a bit better, then become confused. She didn’t know her own birthday.
“She became distressed in the ambulance and even tried to get out.”
A CT scan of her brain was carried out and hospital staff raced through the possible causes of her illness – even quizzing Alison over whether her daughter might have taken some form of drugs. “I knew there was no way that had happened, but I appreciate they have to ask all these questions.
“They decided to do a lumbar puncture, but Fiona was getting very upset and didn’t want anyone to touch her, so they put her on a life support machine in intensive care.
“It was very scary. All kinds of things go through your mind, ‘what if she doesn’t come through this, what if the girl I get back is like a two-year-old, or a five-year-old?’ All we knew was that some kind of infection had attacked her brain.”
After a nailbiting 24 hours on life support, doctors had narrowed her illness down to the possibility of encephalitis – a viral infection that causes the brain to swell – or meningitis. Both are potentially lethal and both can leave sufferers with permanent impairment.
Thanks to her quick treatment, however, Fiona’s condition rapidly improved. As she drifted back into consciousness, doctors confirmed to mum Alison and dad Derek, a solicitor, that her meningitis seemed to have been caused by bacteria from her abscess reaching her brain.
Thankfully she had suffered no side effects, and within a week she had made such an incredible recovery that she was able to return home to Fairmilehead.
Now, as the one-year anniversary of her remarkable recovery draws closer, Fiona has gathered a group of friends together to organise a week of events to raise money to help fight the disease, including a school concert, bakery sale and possibly a school dress down day.
“Fiona’s friends were really affected by what happened,” explains Alison. “In some respects it was harder for them because they didn’t know what was happening. They just knew she’d been at school and then was in hospital, so it was frightening for them.”
One of the key events they’ll take part in is the 10K Great Edinburgh Run, almost exactly a year to the day since Fiona fell ill. Already she is half way to her £500 target for charity Meningitis UK.
Founder Steve Dayman, whose 14-month-old son Spencer died from meningitis and meningococcal septicaemia in 1982, says Fiona’s case is proof of how tricky meningitis can be to spot. “What happened to Fiona shows how meningitis does not always present many symptoms and the importance of seeking medical help immediately,” he says. “We all wish Fiona and her team the best for the week and gruelling run.
“Every penny the dedicated fundraisers collect will help us fund vaccine research to wipe out the deadly disease.”
Meanwhile Fiona is training hard: “I feel I should do something as there aren’t many people who get bacterial meningitis and make a full recovery – I should make the most of it,” she says.
“It’s scary to look back and realise I was so close to dying.”
“I want to do what I can to help raise funds to help fight meningitis, because a huge number of people who get it don’t survive or are left with physical or mental side effects.
“I realise I’ve been really lucky.”
Fast acting and fatal
MENINGITIS is an inflammation of the lining that covers the brain and spinal cord and can be bacterial or viral. Patients suffering the viral form usually make a good recovery, however, bacterial meningitis has the potential to kill within just four hours.
Meningitis occurs when bacteria or viruses enter the fluid surrounding the brain. If the blood vessels in the brain become too inflamed, the brain will become starved of oxygen.
Oral infections – such as an abscess – can in rare cases lead to meningitis. Twelve-year-old Deamonte Driver died in Baltimore, USA in 2007 after bacteria from his abscessed tooth spread to his brain causing meningitis.
Classic symptoms of meningitis include headache, stiff neck and dislike of bright light. It can cause septicaemia, leading to leg pain, cold hands and feet and a rash. Sometimes it leads to fever, severe lethargy, vomiting and confusion.
Around 3400 people are affected by bacterial meningitis and septicaemia in the UK each year. Around 300 people die and hundreds more are left with permanent disabilities.