Blyth woman tells of "excruciating" meningitis experience that almost killed her

A Blyth woman has opened up on her “excruciating” meningitis experience which saw her family told she might not survive.

Monday, 10th May 2021, 10:00 am
Paula Donnelly and her partner Rob Harrison.

Paula Donnelly 30, had just completed her degree Sport, Exercise and Nutrition at Northumbria University when she contracted deadly bacterial meningitis in March 2012.

She was hospitalised in intensive care just 24 hours after she first fell ill, with family in Northern Ireland told to fly over immediately as she might not survive.

Paula said: “I’d been at a family event with an ex-partner. So the following morning when I woke up feeling stiff and achy I just assumed it was because I’d slept on the sofa.”

Paula Donnelly has thrown herself into raising funds for the Meningitis Research Foundation.

As the day progressed Paula began to experience nausea, light sensitivity, and extreme fatigue, unaware she had contracted bacterial meningitis, a serious disease which acts fast and kills one in 10 of those that contract it.

She said: “Everyone thought it was food poisoning because I got so ill so quickly.

"On the train back to Newcastle I was so vacant, and my whole body was in pain. The pain was excruciating.”

Paula barely remembers returning to her flat in Newcastle that evening, where she immediately went to bed.

“I just wanted to be left alone,” she recalls. “But luckily my boyfriend and flatmate kept checking on me, and noticed a few dark purple dots on my stomach, like a rash.

"They rang 111 and they sent out an ambulance. I remember hearing sirens but insisting I was fine – I didn’t want to be a burden.”

At the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle Paula was treated for meningococcal septicaemia, also known as sepsis.

Paula survived and remained in hospital for a further seven days but the disease took a profound toll on her young body.

She said: “When I was discharged there was no follow up care, but I was a completely different person.

"I’d been so active and independent, but now I’d lost all my strength and needed help with everything – getting dressed, using the toilet, using cutlery, everything.

"I flew back to Northern Ireland so my parents could take care of me and they did so much for me.

"I still feel guilty that their lives had to be put on hold as well. I’m so grateful for everything they did for me.”

Rob Dawson, Director of Communications, Advocacy & Support at Meningitis Research Foundation (MRF), said: “When meningitis strikes, it affects so many people beyond the impacted individual.

“Survivors become dependent on loved ones and can suffer from extreme guilt for years afterwards.

"The mental health impact of meningitis is often overlooked, which is why we are so grateful to Paula for sharing her story to raise awareness of the devastating impact of meningitis.”

Paula said: “The consultant told me that if I’d fallen asleep that night, I would never have woken up.”

Now a Director of Layers Studio, Paula does her best to live “for now” and enjoys a healthy, active lifestyle.

“Most people don’t realise their days are numbered till they reach old age,” she said.

“But I found that out aged 21. It made me realise what really matters in life – my health, my friends, and my amazing family.”