I caught meningitis in the first weeks of term and it nearly killed me

Jemma had emergency brain surgery to save her life

For many, it’s an unknown disease you’re warned about at the start of freshers’. Posters are put up in your kitchen and it’s at the top of any leaflet you get from the health centre. But Meningitis nearly killed Jemma Pressman in her second year and left her unable to walk.

She had to relearn basic motor skills including the use of her arms, and was hospitalised for a year. Two years later, Jemma still hasn’t been able to return to university.

She said: “If the vaccine was available when I was at uni I would have graduated and would be living my life as I planned it.”

Jemma, from Hampshire, was in the third week of her second year at Leicester University when she fell ill with Y strain Meningitis. For Jemma it started with swollen glands, and the first doctor she saw thought it might be mumps, advising her to go home for a week to rest.

Five days being picked up by her mum Jemma awoke with “the worst pain I’d ever felt” at the back of her head, rang 111, and was advised to go immediately to A&E. By the time she was speaking to the nurse she was in and out of consciousness so they sedated her and put her in an induced coma. A scan showed that she had severe swelling in both the inner and outer lining of her brain so she was rushed to emergency brain surgery to relieve the pressure on her brain and save her life.

Jemma said: “I don’t remember much of the early days after contracting the disease – I was confused and didn’t understand what had happened. I couldn’t move or breathe without assistance and had to relearn the most basic of things, like breathing, swallowing and moving my arms and legs.”

Meningitis is similar to septiceamia, and 10 per cent of bacterial cases result in death. It can present many different symptoms, and does not always present a rash. Other common symptoms can include a fever, neck, muscle and headaches, and photosensitivity. It comes in both viral and bacterial strains, and while both types are serious bacterial can be especially life-threatening. Meningitis can kill within hours without treatment.

For Jemma, surgery was just the start of three and half months in intensive care as she recovered the ability to breathe independently, followed by spending the rest of the year in a neurological rehabilitation ward relearning everyday tasks and rebuilding muscle strength that had wasted away during her time in intensive care. In total, Jemma was kept in hospital for a full 12 months.

With the left side of her body still weaker than her right, she now has horse riding rehabilitation through a charity called Meningitis Now, for which Jemma is also a Young Ambassador, who work to raise awareness of the symptoms of Meningitis and to encourage students and young people to get the MenACWY vaccine.

Jemma said: “The horse riding lessons have been amazing. They allow me to go to a different environment every week, spending time with different people. Physically the lessons test all my muscles, especially my core, back and thighs. I feel like I fit in again so physically and emotionally it has been very beneficial.”

First year university students are an especially ‘at risk’ group from Meningitis, and according to the Meningitis Research Foundation cases of Men W have risen from 22 cases in 2009 to over 200 in the last 12 months. As Jemma says: “It’s a five-second vaccine that will stop your life completely changing.”

The MenACWY vaccine covers four main groups of meningococcal bacteria, known as groups A, C, W, and Y. It has an excellent safety record and was introduced across the UK in August 2015. If you are not from Scotland but are attending university in Scotland, ensure that you get your vaccine before you go, as you won’t be able to automatically get it from a GP in Scotland.

Even if you’ve already had the vaccination you can still help by becoming a Student Ambassador for the Meningitis Research Foundation’s #StopTheSpread campaign, encouraging friends and others starting university to get the jab from their GP, as well as helping to spread knowledge of the symptoms.

The early symptoms can often be mistaken for flu or a hangover (especially by students), so even if you’ve had the vaccine it’s important to familiarise yourself with the symptoms.

She currently travels around universities educating students on the symptoms so they can spot the potentially deadly disease but nearly two years on Jemma herself has yet to return to university, though she plans to as soon as she is strong enough. As she puts it, she is gradually “getting my life back.”