It was supposed to be the happiest time of Wendy Spanner’s life.
Her newborn son had arrived at last. He might have been 17 days overdue but that – and the fact she’d needed an emergency Caesarean – no longer mattered. He was here and he was perfect.
But within hours of giving her baby his first cuddle, Wendy was being told she’d have to let the doctors take him away from her.
A heel prick test had shown his infection rate was sky high and there was a very real possibility that Wendy and husband Phil might lose him.
They’d not even had time to give him a name yet. Less than 24 hours after being born, their little boy was already fighting for his life.
‘They said “We’ve got to take him, you’ve got five minutes to say goodbye and give him a kiss and then we’ve got to go”,’ recalls Wendy.
‘I remember saying “Hang on, you can’t”. I felt with every breath in my body that I’d protect him. But you just can’t.
‘They wouldn’t let me go with him because I’d just had a Caesarean but my husband wheeled him out.
‘The next time we saw him he had a cannula in his arm. It was pretty horrific.’
A lumbar puncture soon revealed that their son had meningitis, the life-threatening inflammation that can prove to be so deadly in people of all ages.
Antibiotics were pumped into his body through a tube leading to his heart and Wendy and Phil were advised to think about making plans in case he didn’t make it.
‘We hadn’t thought of a name and we weren’t going to rush into it,’ explains Wendy. ‘It was a case of admitting defeat.
‘Everyone was saying “Are you sure you don’t want to name him?” We decided we’d do it when he was better.
‘They were saying “We can get a baptism organised in 15 minutes” but we didn’t even want to go down that road.
‘After about three days we had chosen a name. We could see a light at the end of the tunnel because he was responding well.’
Newly-named baby Thomas was going to be alright – but Wendy still has the name tags which refer to her boy as ‘male infant Spanner’ and it’s a poignant reminder of that time.
In Thomas’s case, it had been the quick-thinking actions of a midwife at St Mary’s Hospital, Portsmouth, that resulted in his speedy diagnosis.
When he was born there had been no indication that anything was wrong. Wendy and Thomas spent the night on the maternity ward and the new mum put the fact that he was sleepy and slow to wake up down to the long labour.
But the midwife had sensed something wasn’t right and arranged for the heel prick test to be done immediately.
As far as meningitis is concerned, every second counts and Wendy now urges other parents to follow their own instincts when their children’s health is at stake.
Thomas had to spend around three weeks in hospital as doctors used antibiotics to treat the meningitis. When he was finally allowed home, a neonatal nurse continued to see him every day for a further two weeks.
Now seven, Thomas has gone on to make a full recovery.
While those with meningitis often aren’t so lucky, Wendy and Phil, from North End, Portsmouth, believe they’re proof there can be a happy outcome.
Last week they organised a toddle waddle at Copnor Infant School to raise awareness about meningitis (see panel) and hope other parents will take hope from Thomas’s story.
‘We had the best outcome we could ever have got,’ says Wendy. ‘I feel like I need to celebrate that and say to people, even if it happens, it’s not always the worst case. Have some hope in the back of your mind. We all look on the dark side but there are children and adults who make full recoveries.’
She adds: ‘At the hospital we were given a leaflet and it had all these statistics in it and we thought “We’re not going to take him home”.
‘It said about two in 10 survive and we thought we weren’t going to be that lucky, why should we be that lucky?’
Thomas knows all about what happened when he was born and has read a book produced by the Meningitis Trust aimed at children his age.
Wendy, 39, and 41-year-old Phil feel certain that the expertise and quick actions of the staff at St Mary’s made all the difference.
Remembering her son’s traumatic start to life still brings tears to Wendy’s eyes and that brings home to her how blessed she feels.
‘It is emotional and that’s something that won’t ever go away, not even when he’s 27 and towering over me,’ she adds.
‘I know people who’ve not got the outcome we had. Things could have been so different.’
YOUNGSTERS AND A DUCK HELP SPREAD MESSAGE
More than 90 children took part in the toddle waddle at Copnor Infant School to help Thomas Spanner and his family raise awareness about meningitis.
The children had a great time meeting Monty, the duck, and made their own hats to wear.
Each child was given one of the Meningitis Trust’s information card to take home. Wendy hopes all the parents will now carry the credit card-sized leaflets around with them as it includes symptoms, signs and helpline details.
Thomas’s sister Lucy, six, goes to the school and the event was a great way of spreading their message.
‘We did the toddle waddle last year as well and I met a lot of mums I didn’t know who said they hadn’t known my son had been ill,’ adds Wendy.
‘We just want the awareness to be out there. The cards are small enough to be carried in your purse. You never know when you might need it.
‘Even if it just saves one person’s life, or gets one person to hospital, it will have been worth it.’
ADVICE FROM THE MENINGITIS TRUST
If you suspect meningitis or septicaemia, get medical help immediately.
Call NHS Direct/NHS 24 or your GP.
Go to your nearest accident and emergency department.
Dial 999 for an ambulance.
Describe the symptoms carefully and say that you think it could be meningitis or septicaemia.
Early diagnosis can be difficult. If you have had advice and are still worried, get medical help again.
If you are worried about the symptoms of meningitis and spotting them in time, go to meningitis-trust.org to find out more, or to download the free iPhone app.
HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF AND YOUR LOVED ONES AGAINST MENINGITIS
Keep up-to-date with all available vaccines.
Carry one of the trust’s free symptom cards at all times – call the freephone helpline on 0800 028 18 28 to get yours.
The early symptoms of meningitis and septicaemia can include fever, headache, nausea, vomiting, and muscle and joint pain. These can often look like other more common illnesses like flu.
Trust your instincts. You know your child, a loved one, or your own body, better than anyone else. If you think it is meningitis, say so.
Someone with meningitis or septicaemia can get a lot worse very quickly so keep checking them.
Make sure your family and friends know the signs and symptoms too.