Saturday 20 January 2018

'I could have lost limbs, my sight or it could have killed me' - Irish man (34) who mistook meningitis for food poisoning

Gareth Armstrong spent 10 days fighting for his life in hospital after he contracted meningitis.
Gareth Armstrong spent 10 days fighting for his life in hospital after he contracted meningitis.

Cate McCurry

A 34-year-old man who was hours from death after mistaking meningitis for food poisoning is hoping to become the first person from Northern Ireland to run the North Pole marathon.

Gareth Armstrong spent 10 days fighting for his life in hospital after he was struck down by the killer disease.

He would have been at serious risk of losing limbs if he had delayed a visit to his doctor by just a matter of hours.

Gareth, from Co Down, had all the symptoms of the MenW strain, including tiredness, sore eyes, neck pain and vomiting, however, he ignored the signs believing it was food poisoning - a decision that almost cost his life.

"I started to lose my eyesight and when my dad called to see if I was okay he made me go to the GP and within minutes of being there the doctor said I probably had meningitis and an ambulance was called and everything after that is a blur," he said.

Dubbed 'the silent killer', meningitis is inflammation of the lining around the brain and spinal cord. It can kill within hours and early warning signs are notoriously difficult to spot.

While the infection mainly affects babies and young children, young adults are also at risk of contracting the disease.

Gareth, who was diagnosed in February 2014, added: "The GP told me that if I had left it any longer I would have lost limbs, my sight or it could have killed me. It escalates so quickly.

"While I was at the Royal Victoria Hospital I had to undergo gruesome tests, including three lumbar punctures in my spine."

It was during these 10 days in hospital that Gareth made the decision to raise awareness of meningitis as he admitted "knowing nothing" about the virus or its symptoms.

"I remember thinking to myself in hospital that if I get out of here I will turn my life around, I made a decision not to take my life for granted. It was a big wake-up call," he added.

"Everything goes through your head, I thought I was very lucky that I was going to walk away from it."

After he was discharged from hospital he contacted the Meningitis Research Foundation which is based in Belfast and has dedicated his life to raising money and awareness of the disease.

Now, after a remarkable journey of recovery and gruelling exercise, the Ballynahinch man has completed several marathons and hopes to become the first person from Northern Ireland to run the North Pole.

He said: "In 2015, almost a year after I left hospital I remember feeling strong enough and thinking I want to have a go at this. I trained to run the Belfast marathon in May 2016. It gave me the confidence to keep going and I got a real hunger for it but my body will never be as strong and as fit as it once was."

Gareth completed four marathons and 10 half-marathons this year to raise money for research.

He is now on the hunt to find a sponsor for the North Pole as it costs up to £17,000 to take part.

He will battle sub-zero temperatures to complete the 26.2 miles in one of the remotest parts of Earth.

"I want to be the first person from Northern Ireland to take part, but I need a sponsor first as it's costly," he said.

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