Sunday 24 June 2018

'Don’t wait for the rash' - warns mother whose little boy contracted life threatening meningitis

Liam Coughlan (7)
Liam Coughlan (7)
The coughlan family in hospital during Liam's first Christmas.
Geraldine Gittens

Geraldine Gittens

A mother whose son contracted meningitis as a baby has warned parents to act fast if they feel their baby is seriously ill.

Liam Coughlan from Shanakiel, Cork contracted pneumococcal meningitis when he was just five months old in 2010. His parents were told to fear the worst, but luckily he recovered.

His mother Grace told “I would say to parents, don’t wait for the rash. Rash only breaks out in 30pc of cases. When Liam started vomiting, I had an overwhelming gut feeling to get him to a doctor. It didn’t look like a tummy bug.”

“You’d know just by looking at the child. There was a tinge of blue there in his skin, he was beyond pale. I’d say to any parent, if you really feel something else is wrong, take all the panic away, and ask yourself if you really feel something else is wrong, and then go straight to hospital.”

As soon as Grace brought Liam to the baby unit in Cork University Hospital, doctors suspected meningitis.

“He was just unwell on the Tuesday evening. He wasn’t himself, he was very lethargic, and I dressed him down, gave him Calpol, all the usual things. The following morning his temperature broke, he was pale but he was fine, but through breakfast he started vomiting. The doctor thought it was just a tummy bug.”

“He didn’t want to eat or drink on the Wednesday, he was very, very pale. On the Thursday he didn’t want to eat, there was blood in his nappy coming from his urine. I brought him back to the doctor and everything was in his blood that shouldn’t have been - ketones, sugar, so the doctor thought it was a kidney infection.”

“His Dad thought he had lump on the back of his head, when I felt it I knew straight away that it was a bulging fontanelle. I knew what it was but I didn’t know the implications.”

“That night I couldn’t comfort him no matter what I did, whether I put him on my shoulder or close to my chest. What put me off was I thought it was the kidney infection. But what it was, it was his head,” Grace said.

Liam had hydrocephalous, or fluid on the brain, and he had five different surgeries to remove this fluid.

“On Friday morning I said I’m taking him to the hospital. After five hours he was seen by a paediatrician. Up in A&E, they knew it was an infection but they didn’t know where. After that we went to the baby unit in Cork University Hospital. They were fantastic. One look at him and they knew straight away it was meningitis. The nurse was taking his temperature and she was looking at him and said ‘the way he’s looking at you isn’t right’.”

“They said they were fairly sure it was meningitis. They scooped him away to do bloods, all the tests. They told us to expect the worst.”

“The first question I asked was ‘is he going to die?’ They said we can’t answer that but we’ll do all we can. As a mother I put it to the back of my head, and I said let’s go ahead with it.”

“We just had to knuckle down. He was in hospital for ten weeks. He was getting medications for the meningitis, but he just wasn’t settling. Every time he took one step forward he’d take two steps back. If they took out the tubes, he’d just throw up. His gut just wasn’t right, it took him a long time. He wasn’t getting any more comfortable in his head so he had to go back to the theatre five different times.”

But luckily, Liam slowly started to recover.

“He’s a miracle really, that he’s here and he’s a normal boy. Things could have been a lot different.”

Liam lost his hearing as a result of the meningitis, and later became the youngest person in Ireland to receive bilateral cochlear implants.

“He was without hearing for five and six months. Usually there’s about a 12 month wait to get cochlear implants for children, but for meningitis patients the ears start to ossify (harden). Any scarring tissue from the meningitis builds in the ears and blocks them up so eventually it would be impossible before the surgeon can get through. So it has to be done quickly.”

Rehabilitation after meningitis can often be a long process. Liam is now on a waiting list for the Child & Adolescent Mental Health Service, because he is showing signs of anxiety. He is also attending speech and language therapy.

“He’ll need speech and language therapy for the rest of his child and teenage years. Now he just has speech and language therapy, they think he has selective mutism – an anxiety disorder.”

“There are some nights when he won’t be able to sleep, he’ll be walking around playing with toys, coming into my room. He has a very, very bad temper, and I see myself that there could be frustration there. He’s a lamb in school, he’s a star boy in school, so I feel it’s frustration and when you’re frustrated you’ll take it out on someone you love the most.”

The Meningitis Research Foundation can be contacted on 01 819 6931, or

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