Phoebe, two, survives meningitis - but it was touch and go
PUBLISHED: 10:58 15 April 2009 | UPDATED: 23:23 15 June 2010
June 22 will be a special day for the Coombes family as they celebrate the third birthday of Phoebe.
June 22 will be a special day for the Coombes family as they celebrate the third birthday of Phoebe. In December, last year they had weeks of worry, with the very real prospect she would not live beyond Christmas. Gavin and Becky, Phoebe's parents, have spoken to the Herald about how their daughter went from being a healthy, happy child to one who could not see, talk and was paralysed by sedation drugs.FRIDAY, December 12, started as any other day for the Coombes family, of Axminster, although Phoebe was still getting the occasional high temperature, cold hands and feet, and sickness and diarrhoea, which she had been experiencing, on and off, over the previous month.Gavin, 32, gave her some medicine for her temperature and noticed she looked a little pale, before heading off to work, at his own business as a panel beater and paint sprayer.Becky said she was concerned when she saw Phoebe's lips had a tinge of grey about them and called NHS Direct for advice, which was to call an ambulance straightaway.Becky, 29, said: "They were really quick, and had come within minutes and immediately called in the air ambulance."In between times, Phoebe, a pupil at Axminster Primary School, had become really lethargic.Gavin returned home and saw how much his youngest daughter had deteriorated.He said: "She was really delirious. I could see she wanted to give me a hug but she couldn't do anything about it.'The air ambulance landed in a nearby field, and despite Becky having a fear of flying, she set that aside and flew with Phoebe to the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital.One of the first consultants to see Phoebe had grave doubts about her chances of survival.Becky said: "He told me later that when he saw her, he thought she was a goner already. He said she was the sickest child he has seen, who has survived."With her condition continuing to deteriorate, she was given as many antibiotics as her body could bear and put on a ventilator.Added to this was an increasing swelling in her left leg, caused by what is known as compartment syndrome, which could only be remedied with emergency surgery to reduce the pressure on the leg caused by the muscle swelling. Gavin said: "Throughout that day, we were told there was a good chance she would lose her leg but there was more of a chance that she would die. They knew she was very sick and contacted Bristol Children's Hospital."It was found she was suffering from a streptococcus A infection, which led to blood poisoning (septicaemia). This continued to affect Phoebe throughout her illness, causing many setbacks along the way. With Phoebe's condition remaining unstable, she had to be resuscitated before leaving Exeter. The transfer to Bristol was described by paramedics as "hairy" and Phoebe began to experience multiple organ failure, which led to her being put on dialysis.Becky said: "I just felt numb at this point because it was touch and go whether she would make it through the night. She was on the maximum medication, but all that was working was her brain and heart, and that was only just."It was my worst nightmare, imagining life without Phoebe. I couldn't believe it was happening."Fortunately, Phoebe did survive the night but it was still early days and the family, including big sister Amber, four, continued to travel on the "rollercoaster ride" that was Phoebe's recovery.With her condition more stable, Gavin returned to work.Being self-employed, it was difficult to leave the business for long.Gavin said: "I went back to work in the run-up to Christmas, because I had people booked in. It was difficult being back at work and I felt torn about not being at the hospital."I did not want to let us down or my customers so I had to be practical and care for Amber to give her stability."If it was not for family members being up with Becky and helping with Amber, at different times, I would not have been able to do it."Unfortunately, worse was to follow for Phoebe, as over the next few weeks she underwent 19 operations and dressing changes, each of which took away infected flesh from her leg, leaving her with less and less muscle.The operations often led to Phoebe's condition deteriorating, with the infection getting back into her bloodstream.Becky said: "I got to the stage of saying that if the leg is causing such problems, then perhaps it should be taken off."Becky was concerned that Phoebe wasn't moving her left arm so an MRI scan was arranged.The couple were then told that the scan had revealed that their two-year-old had a swelling on the brain, and had had a stroke, and also confirmed that she had meningitis.Doctors were concerned that it would affect both her eyesight and hearing.Under the expert care of hospital staff, Phoebe's condition began to improve and Becky spotted that her daughter's eyes would follow her around the room.Becky said: "When she had the stroke, we just hoped that she would return as Phoebe."With Amber due to start school, Becky returned home, with the intention of staying a few days, but after seeing her daughter start at Axminster Primary School, felt compelled to return to her younger daughter's side.Becky said: "I found it too difficult to be away from Phoebe, but equally difficult being separated from Amber for three months.As the weeks went on, so Phoebe started to recover, and at one point Becky wrote in her diary that her daughter was a "chatterbox" and would say hello to everyone who walked by.She was transferred to Exeter after 11 weeks and started to be allowed out during the day, and was later discharged.However, Phoebe still has a long way to go to full recovery, with the possibility of many operations still to come to rebuild her leg, as she cannot walk.Since her return home, the family have had their own Christmas, in March, and are planning to catch up with any other celebrations they missed such as Pancake Day.They are also planning to organise various fundraising events for the Devon Air Ambulance and Ronald McDonald, which provided the family accommodation in Bristol, which Becky described as "a home from home".They also extended their thanks to all those who have supported them over the last few months, including all the medical staff.Becky said: "We do not know how the infection got into her bloodstream but the doctors think her body had been fighting it for about a month before it had to give in."My advice to parents would be to familiarise yourself with the symptoms of meningitis, because there is not always a rash, and trust your instincts and speak to your doctor, if you are concerned about your children's health.