Meningitis, an inflammation of the membrane that covers the brain and spinal cord, can be either bacterial or viral. Meningitis is a medical emergency, as I discovered when I was 8 years old. I got to feeling poorly at school one day, back in 1969. I don’t remember anything about that morning, although I know I couldn’t have ridden my bicycle like I usually did because something needed repairing, so my Mother must have driven me that day. It was too far to walk.
Anyway, the first thing I remember is sitting in class, feeling odd. I remember looking around and thinking nothing looked right. The room seemed dim, my head ached, my lessons didn’t seem to make sense, and I finally just put my head down on my desk. When the teacher came over to check on me, I asked, for the first time in my school career, if I could go to the nurse’s office. I normally loved school and was enthusiastic about my lessons, so the teacher gave her permission right away.
I went to lie down and the nurse called my mother to see if she could give me aspirin. I spoke briefly to my mother, reassuring her that nothing was seriously wrong, the nurse gave me aspirin, and I rested. The nurse chatted with me a bit, and I didn’t feel too badly, so when I heard the lunch bell, I told her maybe I should try eating something and see if it helped.
I went and found my class, got my tray of food, and sat down. But again I began feeling very odd, and I couldn’t eat after all. The lighting seemed strange. The noisy cafeteria sounds dimmed, too, with everyone looking distant as if I was at the other end of a tunnel. Nothing hurt, but I felt disoriented, so I went back to the nurse’s office to lie down some more.
I have always tried not to be dramatic or burdensome when I didn’t feel well, but when the nurse looked my way and I smiled at her, she said she was going to have to send me back to class, since I didn’t have a fever and didn’t seem to be so very sick. She never dreamed I was seriously ill with meningitis, and may have thought I was just trying to get out of working. But I stayed put, and she said I could stay a few more minutes.
Before many of those minutes had passed, I suddenly became very ill indeed. The nurse thought I had brought up what troubled me and all would be well. But then I got sick again. And again. Increasingly violent episodes came in waves, but when the nurse called my mother, no one answered. Finally she decided I would have to be taken home. The only person available to take me was the principal of the school.
Our principal, like most I suppose, had the reputation of being very strict and stern, and I was a little bit afraid of her. She came to collect me, but I could tell she didn’t really want to take me home. As we got in her large, fancy, very new car, she commanded me not to be sick in it. I don’t think she was trying to be mean, maybe just trying to lighten the moment, or distract me. Plus I suppose she truly did not want me to be sick in her car. Somehow I managed not to be, and soon we were pulling up in my drive. However, no one was home.
She was unsure what to do, but I told her I had a key, and besides, I was sure my Mother would be home before long. She was hesitant, but I assured her I’d be fine, so she left me to go in and put myself to bed.
My mother came before long; she had taken my bicycle to be repaired as a surprise for me. She was surprised to find me there, sorry she had not been there to greet me. She stayed with me for most of the night, but nothing she did helped. I could not keep any medicine down, not even so much as a sip of water. I didn’t eat anything else that day, but still I was violently ill over and over again.
The next day was a Saturday, so the clinic wasn’t opened. My mother called the emergency doctor’s number. We didn’t have 911 then, of course. The doctor told her to meet him at the clinic. I was too weak to walk, so my stepfather carried me out to the car. When we got to the clinic, no one was there, but right away a nurse pulled in, unlocked the door and turned on some lights. The doctor arrived while she was leading us to his exam room. He looked me over, asked questions, and when I got sick once again, choking and gagging on green bile, he said I was throwing up the lining of my stomach. He was concerned and decided to do a spinal tap. The nurse stripped my clothes off, laid me on my side on a small table, and painted my back with mercurochrome or some such thing. Then she began curling me in to a ball, telling me to pretend I was a squirrel. She curled me tighter than I thought possible, and then tighter still. Then the doctor took a very long needle and inserted it somewhere in the vicinity of my spine. He withdrew spinal fluid, put it in a little vial, and showed it to my mother. It was cloudy, which confirmed his fears.
I had meningitis. The doctor told my mother to take me straight to the hospital and he would follow. He said not to go anywhere else, and definitely not to allow me to eat or drink anything at all.
At the hospital I was put in an isolation room. This meant a private room, of course, but it had very little in it. No t.v. Nothing that couldn’t be burned or disinfected after I left. No one, including nurses, could come in without scrubbing, putting on paper masks, gloves, gowns, and paper booties. I couldn’t have visitors, other than one short visit with family only in the evening, and they had to gown up as well.
I was hooked to an I.V. since I couldn’t have so much as a sip of liquid. Nothing by mouth. The nurses came in sometimes to take my vital signs, which they wrote on their arms. Mostly I was alone. I was scared. So was my mother. She held it together until she got home, where my poor stepfather, who had heard nothing for hours, saw her come home without me. When he asked where I was, she burst in to tears and sobbed for awhile before she could tell him what was going on. He was afraid I was dead. I didn’t find out about that until much later.
After a few days, I could have liquids. The trays were styrofoam, so I would draw pictures on them to put in my window. Of course, they had to be burned eventually.
Finally I got to go home, and after a while at home, I was able at last to return to 4th grade. Since I was already doing 5th grade work, I wasn’t behind on my school work, and soon the frightening incident was behind me.
Only there was one footnote; about 5 years later something awful happened that made my mother cry all over again. She sold Avon at the time, and had a customer who was also a friend. The customer had a 9 year old daughter that she doted on. One day the girl got sick; her mother took her to the doctor, but he said it was only a virus, and sent her home. That night the little girl went to bed, and when her mother checked on her later, she was dead. Of meningitis. So I am very grateful to that doctor who was willing to come in on a Saturday, do a spinal tap in his office, and save my life from meningitis.