Meet Abigail: the newborn who overcame deadly meningitis

Ahead of World Meningitis day one NI mum shares the harrowing story of her daughter’s illness

Friday, 23rd April 2021, 12:00 am
Abigail today with parents Richard and Claire

First-time mum Claire Brosnahan from Broughshane, Co Antrim, lived through every parent’s worst nightmare when her newborn daughter developed bacterial meningitis and after being intubated and put on life support for 15 days was left with various serious after-effects that have left her quadriplegic and non-verbal, as well as suffering from dystonic four limb cerebral palsy. She shared her harrowing story with the News Letter in a bid to raise awareness of the deadly disease and the serious physical and neurological symptoms it can instantiate.

Claire said: “I had just brought Abigail home from the hospital. She was born at full term with no underlying problems or worrying signs. Abigail stopped feeding and began to look pale. She jerked her head to the side, and went extremely pale and still as though rigor mortis had set in. I immediately felt something was wrong.

“She was having some kind of seizure at just 32 hours old. Her body went limp, none of her limbs were moving and my husband Richard and I began to panic.”

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It was a freezing January night and Abigail sat in the back seat with her daughter in a fug of panic and fear as her husband drove them to hospital in Antrim. Claire was terrified and feared the worst.

“When my husband Richard and I arrived at A&E we put the car seat on the counter and said,’It’s our daughter. We need help. Something’s not right.’ It was the most heart-wrenching kind of trauma. I just thought, ‘How can this be happening?’

“We were told to go outside into a family waiting room, and the nurses were telling me that Abigail was so sick that she could die. We were asking the doctors what was wrong and panicking. She was transferred to PICU (Pediatric Intensive Care Unit) at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, intubated and put on a ventilator and that was it for 15 agonising days when it was touch and go the whole time.

“Staff did a lumber puncture, MRIs, a full blood transfusion - everything she needed she was given. Blood tests showed that she had contracted bacterial meningitis and sepsis from Group B Strep during her delivery.”

Though Abigail rallied, the legacy of the disease will be with her for the rest of her life.

Claire continued: “Abigail suffered extensive trauma to her main organs but most prominently to her brain due to the lack of oxygen and haemorrhage from seizures.

“When Abigail was taken off life support and began breathing on her own and opened her eyes it was the most amazing experience and one we had waited an extremely tense fortnight for.

“But as time went on it became clear that she was not developing like a normal baby. She is now quadriplegic and has four limb dystonic cerebral palsy as well as developmental delay. Her sight has been damaged and she was increasingly experiencing infantile spasms which are now treated by strong medication, meaning she now no longer has seizures.

“But for all of her health problems Abigail brings us all such joy; my husband and I feel so blessed that she is still with us.”

Claire is full of praise for the way charity Meningitis Now were able to offer support, information and the opportunity to meet other families who have been affected by the disease.

“They had a liaison officer called Allison who flew over from Glasgow to meet us. She spoke to us about counselling services and we were able to meet parents who had been in a similar situation. Meningitis Now would check in with us regularly and it was lovely to have that kind of support. We were also able to go out to various family days including a trampoline party in Belfast. The Meningitis Now Team are a really supportive community of people pioneering meningitis awareness. It is like a family who are always there for each one of us on the darkest and brightest of days.”

Claire is philosophical about Abigail’s ordeal and has learned to love her little girl’s unique personality and winning smile, which shines through despite the manifold physical challenges she faces daily.

“When life knocks you so hard with something like that you have to get up. We’ve very much embraced the situation, learned to deal with it and love Abigail completely.

“Abigail loves music, and one of the first songs she took a shine to was Time of My Life from the film Dirty Dancing. As soon as she heard it she was grinning from ear to ear and her eyes would just sparkle. She might be only two and non-verbal, but she has this amazing personality.

“When I take her out in the buggy everyone seems drawn to her and she has this unique charm that is entirely her own. When Peppa Pig comes on TV she is so excited and happy. There is life after meningitis.”

Meningitis Now has launched a new Signs and Symptoms video to help raise awareness of the deadly disease to mark World Meningitis Day on Saturday April 24.

Chief executive, Dr Tom Nutt, said: “We want to use World Meningitis Day to help spread the word and raise awareness of the signs and symptoms and reinforce that we are here to help those who need us. With the impact of Covid-19 leading to some people missing their immunisations and the number of meningitis cases expected to rise when people start to gather again it’s important that we keep meningitis awareness on everybody’s radar.”

The organisation is also calling on local supporters to raise awareness with friends, family and in their community and help #DefeatMeningitis.

The charity estimates that there are currently around 2,000 cases of bacterial meningitis in the UK and 6,000 cases of viral meningitis each year – equivalent to 22 a day.

Meningitis is inflammation of the membranes that surround and protect the brain and spinal cord, usually caused by bacteria or viruses. Early signs and symptoms can be similar to flu, tummy bug or a hangover and include fever, headache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, muscle pain and stomach cramps.

More specific signs and symptoms include fever with cold hands and feet, drowsiness, confusion, pale blotchy skin, stiff neck, dislike of bright lights and a rash, which doesn’t fade under pressure. Symptoms can occur in any order and some may not appear at all. Some bacteria that cause meningitis can also cause septicaemia.

Certain age groups are more susceptible – the under fives are most at risk, particularly those under the age of one; teenagers and young adults and older adults, particularly those over 65 are also a demographic with heightened risk.

Of those who contract bacterial meningitis one in ten will die. Others will make a good recovery, but some will suffer physical, neurological and psychological after-effects.

Meningitis can be life-threatening because of the inflammation’s proximity to the brain and spinal cord; therefore, the condition is classified as a medical emergency. A lumbar puncture, in which a needle is inserted into the spinal canal to collect a sample of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), can diagnose or exclude meningitis.

The awareness day takes place as Meningitis Now launches its new five-year strategy aiming to this life-threatening disease in the UK within a generation.

The charity is working towards a future where no one in the UK loses their life to meningitis and everyone affected gets the support they need.

It does this by funding research into vaccines and prevention, raising awareness so people know what to look for and what action to take if they suspect meningitis and rebuilding futures by providing dedicated support to people living with the impact of the disease.