Storying Sheffield

I’ve heard that people re-evaluate their lives when they come close to death

Thank you to Sarah Smith for this story.

When I left school in 1988 there were plenty of jobs to choose from including apprenticeships, management training schemes and youth training schemes. Only the really clever students went to University back then, which definitely wasn’t me, so armed with 6 O levels and a BTEC National is Business Studies, I embarked on a management training scheme with the John Lewis Partnership. After completing the training scheme I worked as a manager for John Lewis until my first son was born. Ultimately, Saturdays became too precious to work with a young family so I changed jobs. Although staying in sales, in 1998 I began working as an Estate Agent. This wasn’t my dream job but the hours suited me fine, I was near home and my son’s school if needed. Working as an Estate Agent isn’t the most meaningful job in the world and I always longed to have that career rather than just a job that didn’t make me shudder on a Monday morning.

In 2004 I finished working at the Estate Agents to have my second son. The thought of returning to that job and spending the next 30 years selling houses to rich people filled me with terror and I began to think about alternatives. However, this decision was taken out of my hands when I became ill in early 2005 when my son was just 12 weeks old. I had been to see the doctor having spent two weeks struggling with flu. I didn’t see my usual GP but a locum who I had never met before. I was told that a virus was going around and to go home and take two paracetamol. When I then got emotional and told the locum doctor that she wasn’t listening to me I was given the diagnosis of post-natal depression. Exasperated, I asked for a second opinion and saw my usual GP the following day. He took blood and told me he would ring me with the test results the next day. He did ring me and told me that an ambulance was on its way to take me to hospital. Apparently I had bacterial meningitis and not post-natal depression.

I was unconscious when the ambulance took me to hospital; I had lost my hearing completely and all sensation down my right side. I was put on steroids straight away and a broad spectrum antibiotic through a central line to my system. The consultant told my husband and my dad that if I didn’t respond well within 24 hours then I would be dead in 5 days. I was tested for HIV, Limes disease and Sarcoidosis. After 8 or 9 lumbar punctures, MRI, CT scans and x-rays, the medical team decided that I had Tuberculous Meningitis and I began TB treatment. I spent 17 weeks on the infectious diseases ward and was unable to see my boys; the youngest was still only 3 months old. When I was discharged I was assigned a TB nurse for the next 18 months. It was never clear how TB had got in to my cerebral fluid but I didn’t care, I was going home! The TB treatment was very toxic; it left me feeling unwell but very slowly killed the bacteria in my system. The tablets made all my bodily fluids bright red and I managed to scare my husband a couple of times when I cried red tears.

Despite the misdiagnosis from the locum GP, the care I received from our wonderful NHS was fantastic. I know it sounds like a cliché but this experience really changed me and my whole outlook on life. I’ve heard that people re-evaluate their lives when they come close to death and this is the only reasonable explanation I could give to my behaviour that followed. As soon as I got home I enrolled with the Open University to do my undergraduate degree in Psychology. The reasons for this were two-fold; first, I was desperate to understand the psychological impact of my absence on my young son’s attachment to me and second I was determined to re-train and begin a career that held more meaning and find ways to reciprocate all the wonderful care that I had received as an NHS patient.

I received a 1st Class Honours in my Psychology degree and I enjoyed every single minute of studying this fantastic subject. From there, I managed to secure an ESRC studentship to fund my PhD study. I am now a post-doctoral research associate in ScHaRR and I work with people living with dementia to enable them to live as well as possible with the condition. I love my job and I never dread Monday mornings. I still have a slight hearing impairment and some loss of sensation that never returned. TB is also a bone eater so I have some damaged discs in my neck and back. Nevertheless, I am stronger now than I’ve ever been, both physically and mentally and feel very lucky to be alive. We never really listen to people when they say ‘life is too short’ but it really is. The biggest lesson I have learned is not to worry about things you can’t change just worry about the things you can change……and change them.