Jeff's run of hope to beat disease that 'stole' father
When Jeff Skinner heard that his young friend's two-week-old baby had contracted meningitis, he couldn't help but fear the worst.
It came just months after his father George, a fit and sprightly 80-year-old, was stricken down by the disease overnight, leaving him hospitalised and broken for a month before he slipped away.
But his colleague's story was destined to have a happier ending. After treatment, the baby is now six months old, with no signs of the brain damage meningitis can inflict.
Now, Jeff, from Rockbeare, near Exeter, is in training to do the Great North Run, to raise funds to help find a vaccine for the disease which he has been unable to escape in the past 12 months.
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It turned life upside down last September, when his sister called in the early hours to say his father had been taken ill, and doctors thought he may not survive the night.
Speaking from Gibraltar, where Mr Skinner is working on a contract in his job as a chartered accountant, he said: "At first they didn't know what was wrong with him. He'd gone to bed the night before perfectly fine, but in the small hours of the morning he went into convulsions.
"He was rushed to hospital and went straight into intensive care and he never really regained consciousness."
Doctors kept Mr Skinner in a coma for two weeks to try to allow him to recover. But his son said: "When they reduced the drugs to see how he was, there was nothing there. His brain had been so badly damaged that he wasn't capable of surviving. It was a difficult few weeks – we didn't know what was going on inside his head. We didn't know what he could feel and whether it was too bad for him. After a month, he passed away."
The family felt as if George had been "stolen" by a disease which came from nowhere, and is not particularly common among older people.
But they knew George, and they knew he would have hated to survive without being in control of his body. They also treated as a "small triumph" the fact that he eventually beat the meningitis, which was cleared from his system by antibiotics – but by that time, the damage was done.
"That month when he was in intensive care, there were terrible highs and lows," said Mr Skinner. "They took him off drugs and he regained some consciousness, and we thought 'great, he's on the mend', but apparently that happens with meningitis.
"It comes in little waves. He showed a bit of improvement, and then lapsed back into a coma. It was like riding waves of emotion."
When his colleague's baby was diagnosed with meningitis, Mr Skinner feared she would experience the same false hopes. But, at just two weeks old, the child's skull was soft enough for doctors to drill a hole to release the fluid between his skull and brain, which swells with potentially devastating results.
"He's six months old now, and doing great. There are absolutely no signs of anything wrong so far," Mr Skinner said.
Now, he wants to raise funds to stop other families going through the same heartache, and will tackle the 13.1 miles of the Great North Run on September 16, hoping to raise £600 towards finding a vaccine.
"It's a great cause," he said. "When meningitis strikes, it's so quick and it's so devastating. It's really pot luck on whether it's caught in time."
Meningitis UK founder Steve Dayman, who launched the charity after losing his 14-month-old son Spencer to meningitis and meningococcal septicaemia in 1982, said: "What happened to George is extremely tragic and shows how meningitis can strike anyone at any time and quickly.
"It is touching to hear that Jeff's colleague's baby is doing well."