Surviving Meningitis: Reflecting on my recent near-death experience
What actually happened…
The day was Sun 21st Feb 2016. The time was 9pm. I was resting in preparation for my flight back to London. I had no idea that in this very moment I would have my first ever seizure, which would take me to the edge of death. I am not exaggerating. My face had turned purple and my body was violently shaking. To keep me alive my brother had to quickly turn me onto my side and rip open my mouth so I could breath. Within minutes the ambulance arrived and raced me to hospital where it took some of the top doctors in the world more than two days of probing and testing to diagnose my illness.
I had caught a rare form of Strep A Meningitis, which is a bacterial brain disease that kills or paralyses the majority of its victims. In fact on my third day in hospital one of the senior neuroscience doctors came to my family ‘white-faced’ and said ‘he probably won’t make it’ and to prepare for the worst. Literally, the entire right side of my brain was being eaten away by this deadly disease.
However, miraculously within three weeks I have made a full recovery. I was even able to play tennis with my brother the day before my flight back to London on Sunday 20th.
Fact: Statistically, my chances of survival were below 10%.
Approximately, when it comes to my form of Meningitis; 60% of patients die, 39% are left paralysed and almost no one makes a full recovery. Everyone from the senior doctors who diagnosed me to my family and the church community who prayed for me throughout my recovery described what happened as a ‘miracle’. The simple truth is that I am immensely lucky to be still alive and writing this article.
Even more craziness…
It was only on the fourth day in hospital when I fully regained my consciousness. I still can’t remember a single moment during my first few days in hospital. At this point I couldn’t move the left side of my body. I couldn’t understand jokes. I had lost all aspects of my personality. I had tubes inside me for pretty much anything you can imagine. These days were no doubt the most vulnerable and desperate of my life to date.
However, what was amazing is that despite all of this I didn’t feel sad. I didn’t get depressed. I was just determined to get healthy and back to London. The idea that I could die or suffer permanent brain damage or disability didn’t ever cross my mind. For this I must thank my family who came together despite being oceans apart to give me the support, love and positivity that I needed to fight through this illness. The courage, leadership and emotional strength shown by my brother especially was incredible. I can honestly say that without him I would not be alive right now. This just shows how powerful the bond of family can be. Even though we had not spoken for a while, when crisis struck he was there along with my parents and his wife Jessica to make sure I got the best possible care, love and support.
Another bizarre moment in this already almost unbelievable story is the fact that my fightback began on my birthday; on Sunday 28th February. This was the day when I first moved my left hand. Then, a few days later I was throwing and catching a stress ball and even walking up and down several flights of stairs. My recovery was truly exponential (oh the irony!). However, to get there I had to focus intently on each small step of progress. I had to relearn how to walk with my heel first. I had to go through many rounds of physiotherapy. I was stabbed with countless needles for yet another batch of antibiotics and then there was the dreaded MRI tests which release the most powerful and disorientating sounds imaginable. Every day I had to remind myself of the goal of getting back to London and celebrate each improvement until I was finally given the all clear and discharged from hospital on Thu 10th March. There was only one outcome in my mind; that at some point in the near future there would be no trace of this disease.
After being discharged from hospital I was super keen to test the limits of my body so on that same day I went to the gym with my brother and father to start getting back into shape. Note to self: being in a bed for 3 straight weeks with only the occasional walk up some stairs and corridors leaves your muscles pretty weak.
As soon as I arrived at the gym I jumped on the bike machine for a 15min cycle. Cycling in London is something I never want to give up and this was a moment to prove to myself that I still had the strength in my legs. Later I did a short run, some sit-ups, too many squats and finally ten push ups (which were probably the ten most painful push ups I have ever done). Nevertheless, I can honestly say that I never felt better after going to the gym than I did on that Thursday evening.
If there is one thing that a near death experience gives you, it is a perspective on your choices and your relationships. Now that everything is more or less back to normal I can’t help but feel that I am living in slow motion.
I am constantly reminded of how fragile life really is and how much we all take for granted.
All those little things that I didn’t even think about before have now instantly become so much more meaningful…
Moments like… playing cards with family, preparing cereal and strawberries for breakfast, meditating in the garden in the beaming sun, brainstorming over Skype, running in the park and taking a few hours to dive deep into your thoughts followed by a sprint session to write them all out on evernote, remind me of how incredible being alive and healthy really is.
Every time I say ‘I almost died’ the reality of what actually happened sinks in a little more. Perhaps this is one of my intentions for writing and sharing this story. On one hand I was seriously unlucky, and yet on the other hand I am luck to be alive. Basically, I came as close to death as you can get without at least some form of permanent damage. I have literally been given a second life and the question I am left to wrestle with is… What now? Where do I go from here? Do I go back to normal? Will this change me forever? Am I the same person as I was before?
One thing I am determined to do is turn this experience into an opportunity to learn, grow and build even deeper connections with the community around me. I want to dig deeper into not only what happened to me physically, but also how I responded emotionally and spiritually. I want to explore what has changed as a result of this crazy, bizarre and intense near death explosion. I hope in reading these reflections some of you will find a spark of inspiration and wisdom too.
What I learned…
So, the immediate lesson that came to me after all of this chaos is the importance of recognising the fundamental relationship between work and health. I believe that we need to give our health just as much attention and significance as we do to our work. Without health (in it’s most holistic sense) our lives will freeze up and we will be unable to serve the people and causes that we most believe in. There will be no more adventures! :-(
The next lesson is about embracing and preparing yourself for the unexpectedness and uncertainty of life. I was perfectly healthy, ate all the right things, did plenty of exercise and yet I still managed to catch a random and deadly illness. The reality is that the things that knock you off course are always unexpected. You cannot control this. However, I do believe that we can prepare for these moments. For me, the best approach is to slow everything right down and to start prioritising depth over speed.
I regularly carve out gaps in my week where I can pause and become more conscious of my current state of being. Am I in flow? Am I in balance? Do I feel full of energy or am I about to collapse from exhaustion? I also try to listen to my body and reflect on the important relationships in my life right now. I try to notice and acknowledge the choices I have been making. I also ask myself the deeper questions about my purpose and vision for an integrated life and career. Then finally, in these moments of heightened self-awareness, I make sure to make tangible commitments towards action. I write everything down and schedule my commitments on iCal right away.
Ultimately, life continuously flows from highs to lows. The challenge is to stay humble and grounded during the high moments and to fight with every bit of strength you have when you hit the lows. When things get tough I try to focus on the potential growth and learning that these moments often create. My low moments have often been my greatest source of wisdom and a catalyst for change. My high moments help me to build confidence, momentum and ultimately generate impact in the world. Both are required to live a rich, fulfilling and colourful life.
Finding your energy source(s)
Everything requires energy and as human beings we all have limited storage and supply. So if we over-work without recharging and rebalancing we will find ourselves exhausted and ultimately self-defeating. However, if we can discover our unique source(s) of energy and learn how to replenish and channel them, then anything is possible. These energy sources (e.g. purpose, people, places, projects and passions, etc) once discovered can quickly become your greatest asset. They will help you to build the resilience you need to overcome any challenge or crisis.
As I look back on my life so far, I feel that I spent most of my early 20s in a constant race with myself. I wanted everything to happen yesterday. Even when I was trying to rest and take it easy, I found myself unconsciously dreaming of and planning my next adventure. It’s so easy to fool ourselves into thinking we our in balance, in full flow and control, until our lives explode.
So I guess that my near death revelation is to embrace this simple truth… ‘Go slow so you can go far’.
For me the meaning of this line comes down to the following points; Don’t rush through life. Learn to appreciate it in as many ways as possible. Create the conditions where you will be at your highest peak of performance, flow and energy. Design the environment that will draw out your best. This is ultimately the greatest gift of entrepreneurship; the freedom to live your own life and create your own rules. It’s not just about making money and being successful. Entrepreneurship is also one of the best vehicles for inner growth.
Take your time to design your life (if you don’t someone else will). Think holistically. Consider every element of your health and life and reflect on what feels most right for you. Notice your energy levels and mood swings. Don’t ignore any detail or signal .Follow your flow and observe yourself in different situations.
The Value of Resilience & Community…
In conclusion, I believe that there are two things (alongside the excellent medical care and of course the antibiotics) that kept me alive and made my full recovery possible and they are ‘resilience’ and ‘community’.
Even the most experienced doctors at the hospital said that drugs alone could not have caused the exponential recovery that I had. Something happened on my 4th day in hospital that changed the course of my recovery for sure. How and why I first started moving my left hand and fighting back against the Meningitis bacteria in the left side of my brain cannot be explained. Things could have so easily gone a different way and yet they didn’t. I would like to think my resilience (some kind of unconscious self-belief and my overall physical health) played a part in creating the for my body to recover. However, most of what happened during those initial days of critical illness cannot be explained with a rational perspective. I feel that we need to look deeper. This is why I also feel family and community played a major role in my fightback…
Having my family around almost every day and night next to me in hospital helped me stay proactive and focussed on my recovery plan.
Seeing hundreds of likes on every single Facebook post and dozens of comments wishing me a full recovery was extremely up-lifting as well.
The fact that literally hundreds of people who had never met me before from the Houston church community came to the hospital to meet me, sing, pray and offer food is very humbling too. In fact one pastor called Justin led an entire prayer with a hall full of people just about me. Insane!
I think it is fair to say at this point that something else was at play beyond just the drugs and the medical treatment. There is a reason why patients with greater determination, resilience, family and community around them have statistically much better recovery rates than patients who don’t. For this reason I feel that the intuitive, spiritual and emotional side of health should never be ignored. In fact the impact of love, compassion, prayer and positive reinforcement should be studied in much greater detail.
Life can be very fragile sometimes and it is easy to take things that really matter for granted. Now that I effectively have a second chance in life I feel that that it is important not to forget but to build on and grow from this experience.
As I write these final sentences I feel a wave of positivity, gratefulness and appreciation. We only have so much time on this planet so let’s not waste it. Let’s not let a busy schedule prevent us from noticing the small magical moments that happen all around us every day. Let’s not waste our time and talents doing work we don’t believe in. Let’s dream big, but not drain ourselves of every ounce of strength we have left trying to force an idea whose time has not yet come. Let’s take our time and imagine the most epic life we can possible have. When you feel confident in your vision go ahead and share those intentions with the world. I’m sure you will be amazed at what happens next. As Lincoln said… ‘the best way to predict the future is to create it’.
(P.S. Please feel free to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have any thoughts or feedback to share. I’d love to learn from your perspectives and responses. Thank you for taking the time to read my story).