Image copyright Karl Kuitenbrouwer Image caption Dr Karl Kuitenbrouwer is chief of infection prevention at Cambridge University Hospitals.
Earlier this year, I was diagnosed with a bacterial infection – in particular, a disease called Neisseria gonorrhoeae, which is a common cause of gonorrhoea, chlamydia and herpes. My reaction to the news was a mix of relief that it was getting the attention it needed and outrage that the health service had apparently wasted money on coroners’ inquests.
To start with, I was naturally worried about how I was going to tell my family. I was down to four stones. The only words I could manage when I was struggling to swallow were “I feel sick”. On several occasions I fainted while getting dressed, and initially my worried partner assumed I’d developed a heart attack.
The message I received from the staff at the hospital wasn’t so reassuring. They told me to sit down in a waiting room which was full of people. They told me to choose a seat, which I then pulled down through the thin air, telling a passing doctor that I was poorly. I was met with a blank look – a silent reminder that I was in hospital, which of course emphasised my unhappiness.
Once I’d handed over the phone, I spent an hour trying to cough into the bucket by myself, while someone told me to “use the ventilation next door”, as though this might somehow help. Finally, I was forced to try to kick my way out of the room, and finally led to a busy corridor.
I recalled something one of my family had said to me once – that “you’ve already had cancer, so why not some meningitis too?”, which made me realise the magnitude of how bad things were getting.
The security guard took pity on me and agreed to let me use his phone and speaker system to call my family. They were arriving the following day for a holiday, so he could let them know my mum had come to see me, my dad had rushed me to A&E, but not because he was worried about what it might mean for the inquest, and my brother was desperate to see me.
My mum had to be bailed out by a member of the NHS casework team at the walk-in centre. She had been told to send a letter to the local coroner from the health authority, so I could have a date for the inquest to start. Meanwhile, my family were coming to terms with what was happening – one of my sisters told me that “maybe I had a piece of COVID” – which I had no idea what she was talking about.
I got a few sunburnt skin sore, which was extremely painful and worrying, but otherwise my family were able to visit me, though not for very long. As I was out of it, my partner and daughters took me to visit our local chemist and the family doctor so that I could see a consultant immediately. I was placed in a bed, and was soon inundated with enquiries from some of the most unexpected people. My partner and daughters opened their Christmas presents, but I didn’t see them again until the day after the inquest, which I was at home watching on TV.
Image copyright Karl Kuitenbrouwer Image caption Dr Karl Kuitenbrouwer is a professor of clinical immunology, microbiology and molecular virology at Cambridge University Hospitals.
The government is currently pushing for widespread testing for all pregnant women and those over 35 years old. At the moment, testing is conducted on a case-by-case basis to pick up any particular sexually transmitted infections (STIs) that may cause them harm.
I’m sure most would agree that it is more important to screen pregnant women for a range of different types of STIs, to give families all the protection they need at the very least, and to bring this rapidly growing problem under control.
For people with a ‘safe sex’ approach, testing for STIs should not be a discussion – it should just be part of their everyday routines, and if they are to get the results they so badly need.
By Dr Karl Kuitenbrouwer
Senior Associate at Cambridge University