For Natalie Nowak, all it took was one look into her son Ted’s blue eyes and she instantly knew something terrible was wrong with her baby.
There were no warning signs, symptoms or even the distinctive purple meningococcal rash.
It was her mother’s instinct to take her five-month-old straight to hospital in January that ultimately saved his young life against a rare strain of the terrifying, deadly disease.
“He looked at me and I thought, ‘Something is so wrong with my baby’,” the emotional mother-of-three told The Advertiser. “I took his temperature and it was only 37.5C. There was no rash, no vomiting, nothing (but) I had this overwhelming feeling in the pit of my stomach.
“I’m a rational, calm person but it was overwhelming. I just thought, ‘I’ve got to put this baby in the car and get to the hospital’.”
On Sunday, January 15, Mrs Nowak bundled Ted into her car to take him to the closest hospital, the Flinders Medical Centre, from their Glandore home.
“In the car, he was really floppy and super docile,” Mrs Nowak recalled. “By the time we got there, there was a huge line at triage (but) the nurse took one look at us and she sent us straight through.
“We went straight through to resuscitation and, by that time, Ted’s heart rate was 220 (beats per minute) and it stayed at that rate for four hours. They (the doctors) couldn’t work out what was wrong.”
At first, doctors believed Ted had a bad bout of gastro but it soon became apparent he was battling something far worse.
“He started vomiting … they kept him in overnight and, that night, I knew in my gut, I’ve got other kids, I knew they were missing something,” Mrs Nowak said.
“On Monday morning, he had been vomiting all night and you think you’ve seen a sick baby but they could not get a drip into him, he was so dehydrated.
“By lunch time, things were looking really grim. They tried to put a drip into his head through a vein in his skull but they still couldn’t get that to work.”
That’s when doctors told Mrs Nowak and her husband Daniel the news that no parent wants to hear.
“They said, ‘This baby is going to die from dehydration if nothing else’,” she said.
“By this point, we still didn’t know what was wrong.”
More blood tests were done. Eventually, Ted was diagnosed with, an incredibly rare strain not often seen in Australia. There have been just two cases in SA since 2014.
“I still remember the doctor saying to us, ‘Your baby has got meningococcal’,” Mrs Nowak said.
“Everyone had expected it to be the B strain, the one that is very prevalent in Adelaide. It didn’t make sense to me, this then threw us.
“You look out for the rash, all our children are immunised — I just remember saying, ‘Is my baby going to die, is my baby going to die?’.”
It was decided Ted needed specialist treatment at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital and, despite the fact he was so sick, he was transferred after doctors managed to get an IV drip into his leg.
For Mrs Nowak, the moment they left the FMC was one of many defining moments through the family’s horrifying experience.
“As we were walking out, he (Ted) was on a stretcher and he was looking pretty ill,” she said.
“All the nurses are looking at you — they look at you like your baby is going to die. It’s just awful — the look on everyone’s face says it all.”
By the time they reached the WCH on Monday night, Ted’s meningococcal journey was far from over.
“That Monday night, we took it hour by hour — every hour was heartbreaking,” Mrs Nowak said.
“Medically they (the doctors) had done all they could do — the antibiotics either work or it doesn’t.”
The next day, Ted endured a three-hour operation so a PICC line could be inserted in his head to administer vital medication. One of the biggest concerns for doctors was Ted’s right leg.
“After the operation on Tuesday, they (the staff) said they’d like to see things pick up in the next day or so,” Mrs Nowak said.
“The nurses and doctors were absolutely incredible.
“You’re trusting your life and your most precious thing with people you’ve met 10 minutes ago (but) you have to trust them because you’ve got no other option.”
During that dreadful week, it occurred to the Nowaks their son might not make it.
“I kept thinking, ‘How are we ever going to tell them (their other children Calista and Hugo) if Ted dies’?,” Mrs Nowak said, through tears.
But, over the next few days, Ted miraculously got better.
By Friday, he was alert and awake.
“On Friday afternoon, Daniel was crying (because) Ted had opened his mouth and smiled,” Mrs Nowak said.
“We had a big celebration, some of the nurses came in and hugged us.
“By that afternoon, we held him again. I breast fed him that night and by Saturday afternoon he was giggling and using his hands to hold things again.”
Ted was so well, he was sent home on Sunday night.
“Walking out of the hospital, we hadn’t been outside for seven days,” Mrs Nowak said.
“I was holding him (Ted) in my arms and I looked at Daniel and I thought there would be a time we’d be walking out of there without him.”
These days, Ted is a smiling, devastatingly cute seven-month-old. He has no lasting effects from the insidious disease that almost claimed his limbs — and his life.
“It’s changed our whole life — I’d never wish this on anyone,” Mrs Nowak said.
Now the Nowaks are making it a mission to urge parents to vaccinate their children, no matter the cost. They are now vaccinated against the Y and B strains, not currently funded by the Government. All Australian children are vaccinated against the C-strain through the nation’s taxpayer-funded immunisation program.
“It (the disease) is rare but it happened and it happened to my family,” Mrs Nowak said.
She urged the Federal and State Governments to put the other strains on the National Immunisation Program.
“I know it’s expensive but what cost do we put on life?,” she said. “We’re incredibly lucky and blessed — some families go through what we did and they don’t come out the other side.”
Not wishing their ordeal on anyone, Mrs Nowak said the family’s faith pulled them through their darkest hours.
“That’s the only thing that kept us sane,” she said. “Even our little girl Calista said to me, ‘I prayed every night that Teddy was going to be OK’.
“Theodore means ‘gift of God’ and she said, ‘Remember, God gave him to us, he wasn’t going to take him away’.”
SOURCE: The Advertiser