It has been a devastating twelve months for Andrew Gladman after he took well meant advice to ensure his vaccinations were up-to-date. He was ready to begin study at university, but the vaccines seem to have led to some very obvious and bad reactions that did not immediately resolve. It appears that this trigger, not uncommon among a significant minority of those with an eventual diagnosis of ME, and perhaps his reaction to the treatment with antibiotics, are what has led to Andrew’s subsequent ill-health and to his later diagnosis. In his own words, Andrew takes us through this difficult and unexpected period in his life…
A year seemed such a long time before I became ill, but it seems like only yesterday that I was as fit and healthy as any eighteen-year-old could expect to be.
I’d just finished my A-levels, had achieved some good grades in Math, Biology and Chemistry, and secured a place at university to study Biochemistry. My life really did seem to be on the up and I was happy and looking forward to the future.
The previous few weeks had been spent slowly and systematically packing my stuff into boxes and I was all but prepared to leave for the next stage in my education. I remember my Mum mentioning that I should ensure my vaccinations were up-to-date before I attended university – as my brother had done the same a few years before.
I had missed my boosters at Secondary school, so I thought now was as good a time as any to get them topped up – just to be on the safe side – and so I booked myself into the local surgery shortly thereafter.
It did seem a little strange to be sat there, in the waiting room, as I’d never really been sick in my life before – other than the usual colds and flu – but the nurse called me in and decided that I’d be in need of a Tetanus and MMR booster. I agreed – despite my dislike of needles – to have them done there and then, and ten minutes afterwards I was on my way home…
I remember feeling a little out of breath as I walked back, and as ridiculous as it now sounds, colour began to fade from my vision and I soon found I couldn’t continue any further. I lowered myself to the ground at a grassy patch beside the road, and sat there holding my head. It must have been a sight for passers-by. Like-as-not they put my situation down to another drunk teenager cluttering the pavement!
After ten minutes or so, I managed to get back to my feet – heart pounding and still feeling weak – and staggered back home. I sat down on the sofa and watched a little TV before I felt the onset of a migraine. Taking two Aspirin I then went to bed. These symptoms continued for the next week, but I thought little of them and continued to pack for university, simply putting it all down to a reaction to the vaccination, and thinking that it would pass in a few days.
More than a bad reaction?
The next morning I woke to incredibly sore muscles across my body and, strangely, under my arms. I had a look in the mirror and sure enough my left underarm was quite badly swollen and there was a definite lump. I remember clearly that unpleasant feeling in the pit of my stomach. I’ve always been something of a worrier and I figured a lump was never a good thing to find. I walked down the stairs looking gaunt and pale, and mentioned it to my Mum.
She rang the surgery, making me a prompt appointment the very next day – courtesy of a cancellation. The doctor poked and prodded, as they love to do, and concluded it was a cyst and promptly I was prescribed a course of Flucloxacillin. I remember asking at the time if it could simply be a side-effect of the vaccinations, but the doctor seemed very dismissive of this idea.
For three days I continued taking the antibiotic despite the new onset of quite bad nausea and the usual intestinal symptoms that can accompany broad spectrum antibiotics. However, I did feel reassured by the doctor who had promised me that the swollen underarm would abate in a few days. Thankful for this, I even went with my Mum and Dad to do a little clothes shopping for university. During the car ride I felt incredibly ill and the nausea seemed to have gotten quite bad. Being car sick is something I’ve never experienced before, and this was certainly the most ill I’ve ever felt in a car.
That night I felt incredibly exhausted, the malaise seeming to get even worse from trying to plough on regardless. The nausea was getting very bad at this point and the thought or smell of any food made me feel even worse. My Mum, realising I didn’t feel good but wanting me to try and eat, made me a plain jacket potato, hoping I could manage the bland meal.
I sat down to eat it in front of the TV – blurry eyed – and took a few bites and was shocked when a gush of blood poured from my nose. I rushed off to get some tissues and returned, but by this point the nausea had gotten the better of me and I couldn’t eat anymore. Mum was getting really rather worried, and it seemed that I wasn’t responding well to these antibiotics – getting more of what appeared to be side-effects than the original problem seemed to be worth. The next morning Mum rang the surgery and I was switched from Flucloxacillin to Clarithromycin.
That afternoon I staggered to the car with Dad, and we drove down to the surgery where I picked the new prescription from the pharmacy and we were once more on our way. I continued with these new antibiotics for a further day, but I was completely unable to keep any food down. So, I decided to stop taking them until I was at least again able to eat, a move I felt I had little choice in making.
I remember thinking at this time, how strange it was that my initial complaint of sore and swollen underarms had became secondary to everything else – and that the antibiotics themselves had done nothing for the underarm complaint.
For the next week I spent the days laying in Mum’s bed, as I always used to do when I was ill as a child, watching the clock and wondering why I felt this way. Over the course of a week, my weight had dropped alarmingly from my normal 11.5 down to 9.5 stones. Any food I did manage to eat simply led me to vomit it back up.
This effect on my ability to eat continued until finally the nausea seemed to abate a little, and I was once again able to manage small meals and snacks to keep me going. I still felt the nausea almost constantly, but thankfully once I could eat again, the weight loss stopped. With the focus no longer quite so much on my inability to eat, it became apparent how ill I had become in other respects namely through the plethora of symptoms that I hadn’t even been aware of.
I had widespread muscle pain in my legs, arms, chest and neck along with bruises around my knees and elbows. My eyes seemed sore and bloodshot and further to this the lump under my arm continued to ache and had been joined by one in my other underarm. It became apparent to me that these were swollen lymph nodes and I began to put them down to the vaccination and blamed all my other symptoms on a reaction to the antibiotics.
Trying to get back in the saddle
Roughly 3 weeks following the vaccinations I remember walking into town with one of my friends from Sixth Form. Looking back, I admit it was a bad idea to attempt this after such a period of illness, and yet I was starting to feel a little better and thought it was best to try and get back in the saddle. Given we were both leaving for university soon it also seemed a nice way to say goodbye for a while.
He seemed quite shocked as I revealed what I’d been going through, especially given the bruises I had around my joints. I didn’t feel too bad during this trip, but later that day and during the one that followed, I really began to suffer for the exertion. All the malaise, nausea and joint pain returned with a vengeance – and I simply couldn’t explain why this had happened. But a few more days passed and this post-exertional-malaise abated.
I was offered the chance to go with Mum and Dad to see my uncle at his new house, as he had only just moved in, and I jumped at the chance to get out – really looking forward to it. When we got there he was still unpacking the moving van with my other uncles and I was roped into helping. I didn’t feel too bad, but after about 45 minutes I began feeling quite unwell and spent the remainder of the day sitting in his new home while people scurried past me with boxes and furniture. The nausea seemed to return whenever I felt more malaise and I managed only to eat a single packet of crisps for the entire day.
It had been nearly a month since I had first become ill and it had become more apparent to me that something was quite seriously wrong. And yet, fast forward another week, and it was my own moving day – life goes on… I was finally due to start university and I had to get up quite early and begin packing the car with my boxes. I had hardly touched them since becoming ill, but thankfully most of the work was done.
I have to admit I felt both a sense of excitement and nervousness – but I’m sure everyone does moving from their home to university for the first time. The drive down was roughly an hour and a half during which I felt quite ill – not only for the trepidation of a Fresher but also because of the illness I’d been battling against. Still, I wasn’t about to let being ill stop me from attending university and besides, the illness couldn’t possibly last that much longer… Could it?
Unfortunately, I’d been assigned a room on the third floor of my campus accommodation in the only block without an elevator. My parents and I began the multiple journeys transporting heavy boxes from the car to my new room and before I knew it they were off and I was alone. I’m not too proud to admit that it was a little upsetting to be left there as they drove away, but I decided to go and make a cup of tea in the communal kitchen and get to know my new flatmates.
We chatted for a while and before I knew it they were all getting ready to go out and enjoy the Fresher’s party the university had arranged. I decided to give it a miss given my illness and all the exertions I had undertaken, and had an early night. I awoke to sore muscles, nausea and a bad headache – eventually culminating in another trip to vomit in my new en-suite bathroom. It seems a little funny to look back, realising everyone in my new flat was likely doing the same, but for obviously different reasons.
My first day was spent signing-up to the university Health Centre, so that I could see a doctor regarding my ongoing illness. Luckily it was only a five minute walk from my Halls of Residence – a fact that I would come to be very thankful for over coming months. The next few days continued in similar vein with me feeling ill while everyone else went out bonding and having a good time, and it is likely for this reason that I never quite got to know all my flatmates.
That Monday, lectures were due to begin. I took the long walk from my Halls down to the Life Sciences Department and met up with a friend with whom I’d attended Sixth Forum. He could clearly see I wasn’t feeling well and asked me about it. Unfortunately I wouldn’t be able to answer that question properly for another three months and made do with a simple, “Not very well…”.
The week came and went with me dragging myself down the hill to the Biology Department every day and returning in the late afternoon; exhausted and feeling very ill indeed. My first doctors appointment was several days later and I was hopeful I that I might maybe get some answers, but I had no such luck.
The doctor concluded it was likely a bad reaction to the vaccination and made worse by the antibiotics – to which I seemed to react badly. His advice? Rest! Certainly easier said than done for an undergraduate in the first weeks at university!
I’d have loved to have sat down and rested until I felt better but unfortunately at the time I was not able to do so. The doctor also ordered a barrage of blood tests yet they all came back fine. As far as the doctor was concerned I was in perfect health! If only he knew how I really felt…”
Andrew continues his journey in a second and final installment, which you can read here
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Stories need not be as long, or in installments, as Andrews has been, but I do think that sharing them can help both inform others and raise awareness of our medical condition – and be a positive experience for the author.
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