In just 24 hours I went from feeling fine to fighting for my life with what I thought was flu

A MUM ended up fighting for her life and was in a coma for eight days after mistaking deadly meningitis for the flu.

Zara McCarthy, 30, spent eight days in an induced coma last December after being struck down with bacterial meningitis – the most deadly form – as well as septicaemia and pneumonia.

Her symptoms developed rapidly over a 24-hour period and included cold shivers, a high fever, vomiting, deliriousness and purple bruise-like markings.

One year on, the project manager – who had to learn how to walk again – still suffers from fatigue, scarring, nerve damage and PTSD.

Meningitis kills as many as 250 people in the UK each year.

And more than 1 in 5 are left with life-changing after-effects, including brain injury, deafness or, where sepsis also occurs, amputations.

Now for the first time, Zara, who lives in Barrow-in-Furness with her two-year-old son, George and pipe welder partner Chris has told her story.

“You’re very poorly Zara. We’re going to have to put you to sleep now.”

Those were the last words I remember before being put on life support.

An eight-day battle for my life was about to begin but I had no idea.

Just 24 hours earlier, my morning had started off like any other.

My 16-month old son was at nursery and I was enjoying being back at work in my full-time role as a project manager.


I was fit and well and went into the office as normal. It was mid-morning when the cold shivers started and my skin felt sore to the touch.

I put the heater on under my desk, fetched a cup of tea but nothing could stop me shaking.

I figured I was coming down with the flu so left work early and went straight to bed in the hope of sleeping it off.

That night I began vomiting and had diarrhoea.

At one point my partner Chris found me lying on the bathroom floor, eyes glazed over.

He called the out of hours GP and was told it was probably a bug.

Chris later said sweat was pouring off my body and I’d been talking gibberish in my sleep.

The next morning my tummy, arms and legs had swollen up, purple bruises were spreading on the bottom half of my torso and my lips were turning blue.

Chris called the GP who told me to go straight to the emergency department.

My mum, Diane, rushed me to Furness General Hospital.

I was taken straight to the resuscitation ward before being moved to intensive care.

There I was put on life support and pumped with antibiotics.

I learned later that I’d gone into septic shock, my organs had started to fail and I was being monitored as an hour-by-hour case.

A lumbar puncture revealed pneumococcal meningitis, a life-threatening bacterial form.

On top of that, I’d developed pneumonia.


Amazingly, my body responded really well to treatment as well as the fantastic round-the-clock care of the ICU team.

Doctors said it was a miracle I survived but warned I might never make a full recovery.

They added it would be between 12-18 months until I’d find out what my new normal is.

I was given crutches and had to learn to walk again before I was discharged 15 days later.

I had nerve damage and foot drop and was very weak from being on life support.

I was also told that I might lose my toe – which had turned black – and spent the next seven months having my wounds dressed weekly.

In the beginning, it was so hard adjusting to daily life. Not being able to feed, pick up or put my son to bed was heart-breaking.

We had to adapt the house and using a commode was soul-destroying.

Chris took time off work to care for me but I felt bad for being a burden. I also struggled with survivor’s guilt.


Meningitis is usually caused by bacteria, viruses or fungi that invade the body and cause the protective lining around the brain and spinal cord to swell up.

It is usually caught from people who carry these viruses or bacteria in their nose or throat but are not ill themselves.

It can be spread through sneezing, coughing, kissing and sharing utensils, cutlery and toothbrushes.

Anyone can get meningitis but it’s more common in babies and young children, teenagers and young adults, elderly people and those with a weak immune system, such as those having chemotherapy.


Symptoms of meningitis develop suddenly and can appear in any order. Some might not appear at all. They can include:

  • a high temperature fever of 38C or above
  • cold hands and feet
  • vomiting
  • confusion
  • breathing quickly
  • muscle and joint pain
  • pale, mottled or blotchy skin
  • spots or a rash
  • headache
  • a stiff neck
  • a dislike of bright lights
  • being very sleepy or difficult to wake
  • fits (seizures)
  • Babies may also refuse feeds, be irritable, have a high-pitched cry, have a stiff body or be floppy or unresponsive, have a bulging soft spot on the top of their head
  • Someone with meningitis, septicaemia or meningococcal disease can deteriorate very quickly. Call 999 or go to A&E if you think your or your child might be seriously ill.


Fortunately, I didn’t lose my toe but the dark scars all over my legs reminded me of others who had and I felt bad that mine had healed.

The mental wounds were just as deep.

Initially, I had daily panic attacks where I thought I was going to die.

To make matter worse Covid-19 hit and I worried about going into hospital to have my dressings changed.

I was later diagnosed with PTSD and assigned a CBT therapist and medication which have been a great help.

I’m slowly starting to get out more and feeling more positive day by day.

Meningitis can strike anyone of any age at any time. That’s why it’s so important to be aware of the symptoms.

I’ll be forever grateful to Dr Siresh, his ICU team and the angelic doctors and nurses who worked round the clock to save my life.

Also, Chris, my friends and family. I would have never got through it without them keeping me positive.

I know it sounds cheesy but I appreciate all the little things now.

What haunts me is that I nearly never got to say goodbye to my son, partner and family.

That’s something I still struggle with but then I also remember I am one of the lucky ones.

If I can help just one person by sharing my story then it will have been worth it.


Winter is the peak season for the spread of the disease, according to Linda Glennie, the Meningitis Research Foundation’s director of research.

“In recent years there have been around three times as many cases of the most common cause of bacterial meningitis (meningococcal) in winter compared with autumn, in the UK,” she tells The Sun.

“Over winter many of us will, unfortunately, catch a cold or even the flu. By suppressing our immune system, these wintertime viruses may play a part in increasing our risk of getting meningitis. As the temperature drops, and people spend longer periods indoors in close proximity, the bacteria are able to spread more rapidly particularly through coughing, sneezing, and kissing.”

Glennie warns that someone who has meningitis or septicaemia could be dead in less than 24 hours if quick treatment is not sought.

“Survivors may be left with consequences as severe as amputations, scarring, brain damage, deafness, mental health issues, and learning difficulties,” she adds.

“If you suspect meningitis in yourself or in another person, it is important to trust your instincts and seek medical help.”

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