Health: Meet the meningitis survivor standing tall

Kathleen Hawkins.
Kathleen Hawkins.
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She was enjoying her first taste of independence when she was struck down by an illness which almost killed her. Katie Baldwin met determined meningitis survivor Kathleen Hawkins.

HER consultant likened it to being hit by a double-decker bus.

That was the kind of harm that meningitis and septicaemia had caused to Kathleen Hawkins’ body.

From feeling a little under the weather one evening, by the next morning she was desperately ill and within hours was fighting for her life.

By then blood poisoning had already caused irreparable damage to her legs and eventually they had to be amputated - a loss made all the more difficult as Kathleen had trained as a dancer.

Now, sitting in her shared house in Leeds, the 23-year-old looks like any of the thousands of other young people studying in the city - it’s only a closer look that reveals the prosthetic legs on show beneath her stylish dress.

“It doesn’t get me down,” she said. It did for the first couple of years but I am okay about it now and often I don’t think about it.”

Kathleen was in her first semester at Leeds University studying English and theology when she became ill in December 2007.

After returning from an evening dance rehearsal, she felt unwell but wasn’t too worried.

“In the night I was sick and I felt really ill but I still didn’t think anything about it,” she said.

“In the morning I managed to get up and luckily I unlocked my door, because that could’ve been critical if I had stayed in bed.

“I managed to get into the corridor and the lights were blinding. I made it into the kitchen and I was passing in and out of consciousness.”

Her flatmates rang an ambulance and Kathleen was taken to accident and emergency at Leeds General Infirmary, where an eagle-eyed junior doctor spotted a telltale rash on her arm.

“They pumped me full of antibiotics and rushed me to intensive care,” she said.

Events after that are a blur, but her parents were contacted and told to come immediately from their home in Retford, Nottinghamshire.

“On the way up they got a phone call from the hospital saying ‘drive carefully but get here as soon as you can’, and they knew it was very serious,” Kathleen said.

“When they arrived they were told ‘she is critically ill, she has got meningitis’.”

Kathleen was by then on a life-support machine with her organs failing.

“My parents were told that first night that the doctors had done all they could and to get any family around that they wanted.

“It was a case of I was going to die.

“That happened twice – that night and again the next day.”

But Kathleen defied the medics and came through the worst, although she spent over three weeks in intensive care, much of it in a coma. When she came out of that critical stage, her kidneys started failing and she had to go onto dialysis before luckily they started working again.

It was much later that she was told of the terrible damage to her legs.

“Septicaemia just ravages your body,” she said.

“The damage was done pretty much straight away. When my parents first came to see me, I was covered in a rash.

“Originally they told me I would lose my toes and my heels. It wasn’t until I’d been in hospital for about two months that they knew the extent of the damage.”

Initially doctors thought she would only lose one leg – which prompted her to scream ‘please no’ at the doctors.

“I did not know anything about prosthetic legs, I didn’t know I’d be able to walk again or the life I would be able to live,” she said.


“I was absolutely devastated.”

She underwent surgery to remove one leg but doctors then realised how bad her other leg was, and she was given a choice about that – but warned of the potential issues and so agreed to have that amputated too.

After leaving hospital, Kathleen returned home to her family to recover though came back to Leeds regularly for physiotherapy at Seacroft Hospital, where the city’s prosthetics department is based.

Recovering physically and mentally was a challenge.

“It’s not just the physical effects but your body has been completely shaken by a life-threatening illness,” she explained.

“One of the consultants said it was like being hit by a double-decker bus.”

The fact she was physically fit from dancing helped her body to recover – though it was a mental struggle to accept she could never dance again.

“I’d been a dancer since I was a really small girl. It was a real passion of mine. That was one of the hardest things.”

Within two months she was walking again on her first pair of prosthetics and in September the same year she returned to Leeds to start her degree course again. She said it was difficult being in the same places as a year earlier, but now in a completely different situation.

“Getting around and keeping up with my friends was hard at times.

“I also had an issue about telling people which I hadn’t had before, but people responded really well.”

Kathleen completed her undergraduate course and is now studying for a masters degree in religion and public life, with ambitions to become a journalist.

She can do most activities and even has waterproof legs for swimming.

“I’ve tried to do as much as possible,” she said.

“I just give everything a go, it’s a confidence thing as much as anything. It’s just trying to go for that hurdle and blow what everybody else thinks.”

She is also determined to use her experience to raise awareness of the symptoms of meningitis – which she didn’t think for a minute she could become a victim of.

The Meningitis Research Foundation has named her their ambassador in Leeds, representing the charity locally and regionally.

Previously Kathleen was a befriender, supporting other people affected.

She said: “I was honoured to be asked to represent them as an Ambassador as they do an amazing job funding research into meningitis and septicaemia and supporting people affected by the diseases. I look forward to meeting as many people as I can in my home town to spread the word about the great work we do.”

Chris Head, chief executive of the charity, said: “We are so grateful to Kathleen for agreeing to represent the work we do in Leeds.

“Our ambassadors have been set up to meet the specific needs of their local communities - either speaking to the local media about our latest campaigns or providing talks in nurseries and schools across the region. “In addition, the ambassadors aim to become an accessible and reliable source of information, tips and resources for local people who want to get involved in charity fundraising as well as organising, participating in and assisting with events themselves. We have a huge network of members around the UK who help raise awareness and vital funds and the work they do on our behalf makes a huge difference.”


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