Winter bug nearly had fatal outcome

20:46, Jul 23 2014
Sarah Smith
WINTER BUG: Sarah Smith, 35, nearly died after contracting a rare form of bacterial meningitis. Husband Clint Smith and daughters Olivia, 4, and Sam, 1, relax at their home in North Canterbury.

It seemed like a predictable winter virus had hit the Smith family - an unpleasant week of snotty noses and sore throats, but nothing they had not seen before.

However, within hours the cold Sarah Smith thought she had became life-threatening.

A year later, and against the odds, the 35-year-old North Canterbury woman has survived a strain of bacterial meningitis, which infects the brain and spinal cord.

Smith was one of eight people in Canterbury to contract the deadly disease last year.

Sarah and her husband, Clint Smith, say they are still putting their lives back together after the traumatic event.

"I'm not sure the stress has left. Thinking about it, I still feel like crying," Clint, a refrigeration engineer, said.


It had been a challenging week for the family when Sarah came down with the illness last August.

Clint had been home from work with an ear infection that week and the night before he had taken 8-month-old baby Sam to the after-hours surgery with croup.

Sarah spent most of the next day in bed, suspecting she had been hit with the virus too.

At about 3am, her temperature skyrocketed and, on advice from the Healthline phone service, Clint helped her into the shower.

Afterwards, he found Sarah slumped over baby Sam while breastfeeding. Clint called the ambulance.

Over the next 30 minutes Clint watched his wife spiral out of control.

Shaking violently, she became delusional and stripped naked and appeared to lapse in and out of consciousness.

An initial assessment by the paramedics proved challenging, as Sarah refused to cooperate.

"I think they thought she was taking the p...," Clint said.

A local nurse arrived separately and called the air ambulance.

Clint said his worst fears were confirmed when he arrived at the hospital.

Doctors told him it was positive his wife was young, but he should prepare for the worst. If she survived, she could be left with a brain injury affecting her speech, movement and memory, they said.

Over the next week, Sarah was given massive doses of antibiotics to treat the infection and reduce the swelling of her brain.

Being brought out of the coma felt "like having a fish bowl on your head", Sarah said.

"I thought what am I doing here? I'm not dying, I haven't seen my kids grow up yet, I need to stay awake."

A year later she has regained full health, but the experience is still quite raw.

"Everyone thinks it won't happen to them, so I feel a lot more vulnerable."

The illness has had a lasting effect, Clint said. "Before I felt safe in ignorance. It was a bit of a wake-up call how easy these things can happen."

Doctors could not confirm how Sarah contracted the disease, but up to 15 per cent of the population carried the disease in their nose or throat without it causing them any harm.

There were 61 confirmed cases of meningococcal disease in New Zealand in 2013, four of them fatal.

In January, Courtenay Shavaughan Rushton died in Christchurch Hospital after being admitted with suspected meningococcal disease.

The Press