The following is a condensed version of the third chapter of In Search of Simplicity. It describes my experience of spinal meningitis in Norway in 1986, the second time I’d encountered the deadly disease.

 

London, May, 1986.

 

“Can you tell me where I might find the Russia-Scandinavia tour bus?” asked the blonde stranger.

After a restless night spent in one of London’s crowded traveler hostels I had been searching in vain for the bus that would take me on my next adventure, a six week camping tour of Scandinavia and the Eastern European communist states. The 8.30 am departure time was rapidly approaching.

“Do you know where the tour bus is?” asked the young man again. I was more than a little surprised to have this absolute stranger voice the very question that was on my lips.

“Funny you should ask. I’m looking for the same bus,” I responded, smiling back at this man. “Let’s look for it together. It can’t be far away.”

So it was that I met Dean, the shy, muscular Cape Town native who was taking time out from construction work in London.

 

We found that bus around the next corner. We were the last to arrive. We quickly discovered that aside from a couple of Canadian girls in their late teens, we were the only travelers on the tour who were not from Australia or New Zealand. There is something divinely ‘right’ about two lost people meeting each other. Perhaps it happens more often than most of us realize.

The bus took a ferry across to Belgium and we spent the first night of the tour in Amsterdam. Over the next week we carried on up to Denmark and we were soon enjoying the beautiful fiords north of Oslo.

 

We were driving along a road cut through snow banks the height of the bus. I leaned over to Dean and said, “I feel horrible.” I was beginning to feel sick to my stomach and had the faint onset of a headache.

 “Perhaps you’ve got a touch of food poisoning, John,” said Stan, the red haired Kiwi whom both Dean and I had befriended.

“Maybe I do,” I groaned, lying down on the seat. In a matter of minutes I had a whopping headache. It felt like my cranium was beginning to swell and my neck was stiff and throbbing.

A few minutes later I called out, “I think I’m going to die!” I had never voiced these words before and I wasn’t sure where they were coming from now. I was terrified. I must have been delirious.

“John, take a couple of aspirins,” interjected Maree, a petite Australian friend. It was rare for me to use any medicine but I was grateful for this offer now.

I lay down again and dozed off.

I was incredibly grateful when the bus stopped and our travel was over for the day. I was doubly grateful that this was to be our first stay in quite comfortable cabins, after night after night of camping. The thought of a tent was not an appealing idea. Dean and Stan helped me to a lower bunk.

I had excruciating pain in my head, which now felt as if it was swollen like a balloon.

“My neck is too stiff to bend. Can you guys help to get my shoes off?” Dean and Stan were happy to oblige. They helped me get under the covers.

That night passed by in a blur of repeated somnolent trips to the toilet to vomit. Despite evacuating my stomach throughout the night I felt even worse in the morning. My head felt as if a herd of Norwegian reindeer had stamped on it all night. Stan and Dean supported me as I stumbled out to the bus. That is all that I remember. At this point I slipped into a coma.

I heard later that our tour leader became very concerned. They stopped at the next village and consulted with a doctor. When the doctor observed my comatose form and noted the other symptoms, which now included spots all over my arms, he diagnosed spinal meningitis and prepared to give me a massive injection of penicillin.

I awoke abruptly from the coma to find that I was lying on my back. I saw a doctor above me holding a large needle before my eyes. The doctor was flanked by two nurses on one side and three female friends from my trip.

Maree looked at me in surprise. “Oh, hello John. You’re awake. Are you allergic to penicillin?”

“Yes,” I replied and slipped immediately back into the coma. That memory is still etched indelibly in my mind over twenty years later.

 

The next day, twenty seven hours after I initially went into a coma, I returned to consciousness with a splitting headache, in what appeared to be a small, private hospital room. I was being drip fed on intravenous.

After a short time, a nurse, with a cloth over her mouth and nose, looking like a bank robber in white, quietly entered the room.

“Oh, hello. Good to see you back with us. You’re a lucky young man,” she exclaimed.

“Where am I?” I asked. “What’s going on?”

“You have spinal meningitis. You are in the hospital in Molde, a small town in Norway. The doctor will explain more to you later.” She checked the intravenous and some monitoring devices and then left the room as quietly as she’d entered. My impression of her now was more of a talking ghost than of a bank robber.

A few hours later the doctor visited me.

“Hello John,” he said. “How are you feeling?”

“My head aches and it feels like I could sleep for a week,” I responded, remaining prone in bed.

He looked at me understandingly. “That’s not unusual. You will be with us for a while. We are all happy to see you out of the coma. Do you have any questions?”

“How did I get this, meningitis, that is?” I asked.

“For some unknown reason we have a few cases of it in this part of Norway at this time every year. A teenage boy died last week here in the hospital. Meningitis is highly contagious and it usually attacks children or young people who are fit and healthy. It is a mystery why one person gets it and another doesn’t.

 “As for your headache we have you on morphine through the intravenous for now. If you have difficulty sleeping we can give you some sleeping pills.”

He left, presumably to continue his rounds. I promptly fell asleep.

For close to two weeks I remained in that room, isolated from other patients and most of the nurses save for the friendly, talking ghost.

Despite steady improvement in my condition, there were a few little complications. The veins in my forearms became rigid and made it increasingly difficult for the nurses to rig up the intravenous for me there. They decided to use a vein on the left side of my neck. This worked well until I developed a huge herpes in that location.

Each time the doctor came by I would ask the same question, “Can I go home yet?” His response was always the same, “Not yet.” This made for rather tiresome conversations.

Finally, after nearly two weeks the doctor said, “We’re going to give you a spinal injection tomorrow to see if your cerebrospinal white blood cell count is low enough for you to leave.”

This should have been good news. But I lay in bed and wondered, What if the white blood cell count is too high for me to go home? What if they make a mistake with the needle? I don’t like the idea of someone jabbing me in the spine with a needle. I still remembered vividly having spinal injections when in the hospital with meningitis at the age of four. This current experience seemed to trigger deeply buried fears from that time of illness as a child.

 

The next day I was wheeled down to the belly of the hospital for my shot. All went well and there were no complications. I had to wait all afternoon for the results. I felt like a prisoner who had been on death row when the capital punishment law was revoked. I was waiting for the decision of the prison warden to see if I had served enough time.

Early in the evening, in the eerie light of a northern summer day, the doctor came to visit me. The smile on his face said it all. “The white blood cell count is low enough. You can go home tomorrow. Congratulations.”

“That’s great. Thanks,” I said, a wave of relief pouring through me.

“No thanks are needed,” said the doctor. “You have healed well.”

I started to get out of the bed.

“What are you doing?” asked the physician.

“I thought I’d pack my things. Isn’t my backpack in that closet beside the bed?”

“John, please stay in bed and rest until you are discharged tomorrow. This has been a serious illness. You have only just survived. Do you know how close to dying you were?”

“No,” I said a little sheepishly, getting back under the covers.

“John, you have to rest for at least another five to seven weeks before you can resume an ordinary, active life. If you don’t rest enough you could have a headache for the rest of your life.” The doctor seemed to be coming on strong but, in fairness, he could see that I was not inclined to remain idle for long. I took his words seriously. After all, I continued to have a raging headache that had hardly abated in two weeks. I was anxious to leave and get on with my life. I felt that this hospital and its mostly unsmiling faces was no longer a healing environment for me. Modern care and allopathic medicine, together with ‘angelic’ intervention (at the time of the nearly fatal penicillin injection), had saved my life. What I craved now was that greatest of healing forces, love, and I could think of nothing better than to fly home to Canada and stay with my parents until I was healthy enough to resume my travels.

 

I spent the next three weeks with my parents in their home on the north shore of Lake Ontario. It was just what I needed: frequent walks in the lakeside air, the sound of birds, the summer warmth, my parents’ love and practical care. I recovered quickly, gaining some of the weight I’d lost in Norway. The headache waned and then, one day, it was gone.

 My mother and I took another walk through the long grass beside the lake. The killdeers were nesting and singing the distinctive melody that gives them their name. Mom said softly, “We were so concerned when we went to pick you up from the airport. We thought you might be blind or partially deaf. We were so relieved to see you in a remarkably good, if weak, condition.”

 I made a trip to the library to research meningitis. In a medical text I read that in seventy percent of the cases in which the patient is not treated within 24 hours, death follows. Of the thirty percent that survive many have mental difficulties, blindness or associated long-lasting debilitations. I was a lucky man. Twice in my life I’d had spinal meningitis. Twice I’d fully recovered and I’ve rarely had a headache in all the years since.

As my health steadily improved I looked into resuming my world tour. But I could see that the nature of my journey had dramatically changed. Rather than seeking adventure and the discovery of new places, I was now in search of meaning, in search of answers to the deepest questions in life. I was now in search of truth and simplicity.

This experience had transformed me. I wanted to know what or who had woken me from the coma at precisely the right time to save my life. I wanted to know why I was allowed to live and what I was to do with the rest of my life.

I was fired with a burning desire to understand the deeper issues of life. Finished with floating on the surface, I wanted to dive beneath the froth and make some sense of the mystery that lay below the waves.

Perhaps most importantly, I knew now, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I was being guided on my path and that I was never alone.

Subscribe to In Search of Simplicity by Email

John Haines is the author of In Search of Simplicity: A True Story that Changes Lives, a startlingly poignant and inspiring real-life endorsement of the power of thought, belief and synchronicity in one’s life.

Advertisements