Paralysed by 'freshers' flu' - meet the meningitis victim who has learnt to walk again

16th Mar 18 | Real Life

Lawyer-in-training Jemma now encourages her fellow university students to be vaccinated against the life-threatening illness.

FINALJEM

A 23-year-old woman, paralysed after contracting an ultra-rare strain of meningitis, is walking for the first time in years – describing her journey back to mobility as "like being reborn."

Aged 19 and looking forward to her second year as a law student at the University of Leicester, Jemma Pressman was unconcerned in September 2013 when she developed a fever and vomiting.

Jemma, whose postwoman mum, Shev, 51, drove 130 miles to Leicester to collect her daughter and take her home to look after her in Eastleigh, Hampshire, said: “I didn't think much of it, I thought it was maybe mumps - loads of students get that.”

Jemma and Leah Pressman, left to right (Collect/PA Real Life)
Jemma and Leah Pressman, left to right (Collect/PA Real Life)

Instead, it was the start of a four-and-a-half-year pitched battle with two rare and life-threatening illnesses – meningitis Y, a bacterial strain of the condition, which can damage the brain and spinal cord, and encephalitis, which causes the brain to swell.

Left paralysed, only now is she able to walk confidently again – releasing a moving video of her first steps to give fellow meningitis sufferers hope.

Unable to return to university since her illness, Jemma, whose twin sister, Leah is a paramedic, recalled: "Mum was so pleased when she saw me walking, she whipped out her camera and started filming... it was very emotional. She just couldn't believe it. ”

Jemma, who now hopes to train on the job to become a lawyer, remembers how she started feeling sick on the night of September 13, 2013.

"I had a stiff neck, I ached, I was vomiting and felt generally unwell,” she said. “Concerned, literally the minute she finished work, Mum drove straight up to collect me. I thought I was feeling better, but in the early hours of the Saturday morning, I started being sick. I had a really bad headache, I couldn’t stand light and I ached so much."

Her mum dialled the NHS non-emergency number, 111, and was told to take her straight to casualty at the Royal Hampshire County Hospital in Winchester.

Jemma Pressman, in hospital (Collect/PA Real Life)
Jemma Pressman, in hospital (Collect/PA Real Life)

"The last thing I remember is speaking to the triage nurse at the hospital," said Jemma, who now visits universities in the UK encouraging students to have the MenACWY vaccine, which is available on the NHS. "But, after that, things went downhill quickly."

Put in an induced coma, Jemma was taken for a CT scan. There, doctors realised something was drastically wrong.

"Medics realised there was swelling in my brain and they rushed me in an ambulance from Hampshire County Hospital to the bigger Southampton General Hospital," she explained.

Jemma Pressman, walking for the first time in years (Collect/PA Real Life)
Jemma Pressman, walking for the first time in years (Collect/PA Real Life)

"They put a drain in my brain to reduce the pressure, leaving it in for about three weeks. Afterwards, when I was taken out of sedation, they realised I had meningitis and encephalitis.

"I don't know if the two illnesses were linked. Maybe because I was run down, it was easier to catch two infections."

At this point, so she could be closer to her mum, Jemma was transferred back to hospital in Winchester, spending nearly four months in intensive care, reliant on a ventilator.

Jemma and her her mum, Shev Pressman (Collect/PA Real Life)
Jemma and her her mum, Shev Pressman (Collect/PA Real Life)

"This period of my life is very hazy," she explained. "I was deeply confused and didn't understand why I was in a hospital bed.

“Initially paralysed by the infection, when the feeling came back in my right side, after a few weeks I had to learn to swallow, make sounds and even blink again.”

Transferred to Western Community Hospital in Southampton for rehabilitation, she spent a year there, relearning how to do everything - from the "little things to the massive things."

Jemma Pressman larks about at university, before she fell ill (Collect/PA Real Life)
Jemma Pressman larks about at university, before she fell ill (Collect/PA Real Life)

"I couldn't walk at this stage," she said. "I had to learn how to speak, eat, brush my hair - all sorts."

And when she was finally discharged, in October 2014, going back to live with her mum, she realised her mental health had been affected by her ordeal.

"When you’re in hospital, you don't feel different," she said. "But when you get home, it reminds you how life once was.”

Jemma Pressman, centre, with her sister Leah, in a pink top, and their friend (Collect/PA Real Life)
Jemma Pressman, centre, with her sister Leah, in a pink top, and their friend (Collect/PA Real Life)

She said: “I was so, so scared to go out. I felt like I couldn't. I was stuck in a wheelchair.

"On top of this, all my muscles wasted away, I had to build them up again, it was like being reborn."

Then, after intensive rehabilitation, a short while ago Jemma, who is now an ambassador for the charity Meningitis Now, started walking. At first slowly, she gradually built up her steps.

Jemma Pressman's journey (Collect/PA Real Life)
Jemma Pressman’s journey (Collect/PA Real Life)

Now, with the aid of a metal walking frame, she can move about her home.

"I'm feeling a lot more confident," she smiled. "Initially, I didn't realise how awkward I looked, walking about. I was scared I would fall, but I’m not anymore. I am positive about the future. I can walk around indoors. One of my goals is to be functional and get things out the fridge. It’s what I aim for.

"You always get moments where you think, 'Why did it happen to me? My life was fine before, I was doing everything right.' But you can't let that hold you back."

Jemma Pressman (Collect/PA Real Life)
Jemma Pressman (Collect/PA Real Life)

Early symptoms of meningitis can include:

  • Fever, headache, vomiting, muscle pain and fever with cold hands and feet.
  • Someone with meningitis or septicaemia can get a lot worse very quickly. Keep checking them.
  • Trust your instincts - Get medical help immediately. Visit https://www.meningitisnow.org/

© Press Association 2018

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