Here, Grace, 17, tells the story in her own words.
I￼t was the first day of the school holidays and I was looking forward to hanging out with my friends and earning some money. But during a shift at the pizza-delivery shop where I worked, I started to feel really unwell.
My whole body ached and I was struggling to stand up at the counter and serve customers. At the time I was on my period. This is worse than cramps though, I thought. Needing to sit down, I went out the back to take orders over the phone instead. Just then I had to rush to the bathroom to be sick. ‘You should go home,’ my friend said. So I called my mum, Shona, and she came to collect me.
On the way back, I threw up again and that night I was sick constantly. ‘I’ve never seen you like this before,’ Mum worried, when she checked on me. Next she noticed a rash on my stomach, which spread to my chest, neck and thighs. And the following morning I had diarrhoea and a high fever.I tried to have a shower, but I was so weak I had to sit down as the water ran over me.‘I’m taking you to the doctor,’ Mum said. There, readings showed my blood pressure was really low and my heart rate was high. ‘This isn’t right,’ the doctor said. When it didn’t improve after 20 minutes, he referred me to the emergency department at Whangarei Hospital.
In the waiting room, I laid over three chairs, with my head on Mum’s lap. ‘Grace, you need to sit up,’ she said when it got busy. ‘People want to sit down.’ ‘I can’t,’ I said, weakly. All I could do was sleep. Usually I was really active. I loved soccer and hated napping. ‘Something must be seriously wrong,’ Mum said, stroking my hair. Finally, I was called in and a nurse took my blood pressure. ‘I think the machine’s broken,’ she said when she couldn’t get a reading. Using another machine, it came back 70/30. A normal reading is about 110/70. ‘It’s so low,’ she said. That’s why it hadn’t been showing up.
I was also dehydrated from being sick so much, so I was hooked up to a drip. Despite going through five bags of fluid, doctors noticed I didn’t use the toilet. ‘It means her kidneys aren’t working,’ I heard someone tell Mum. Tests ruled out measles or meningitis, so they were baffled. ‘Are you on your period?’ a doctor asked suddenly. ‘Yes,’ I muttered. ‘Have you got a tampon in?’ she said. ‘Yes,’ I nodded. ‘I think you might have toxic shock syndrome,’ she said. ‘You need to get it out right now.’
After removing the tampon, I was rushed to intensive care and given antibiotics intravenously. Mum was beside herself. I should be scared or crying, too, I thought. But I was so exhausted, I just felt numb. That day, a blood culture confirmed I did have toxic shock syndrome (TSS). Everything was a blur as I drifted in and out of a deep sleep. Then, during the night my liver and heart started failing, too.Thankfully, medication began to work and the next day I was told I was stable.
Finally feeling more like myself again, I was moved onto a ward. ‘Right, we’ll walk to the end of the hallway,’ Mum encouraged me. After being bedridden for three days I was a bit wobbly, but slowly I made it there and back. While I recovered, one of Mum’s friends, who’s a nurse on the orthopaedic unit, came to see me. ‘You’re a bit of a celebrity around here, Grace,’ she said. ‘We haven’t had a TSS case in about 20 years. Everyone’s talking about it.’ It’s so rare – and no-one could tell me why it happened to me.
I’d used tampons for a couple of years, changing them every two hours. But my case proved it could affect anyone.After three days I was discharged with antibiotics.‘Your risk of TSS is increased if you use tampons again,’ the doctor warned. So back home, I threw out all my tampons, and Mum stopped using them, too. I always thought you could only get TSS if you left a tampon in for an extended period of time. But just using a tampon means you’re at risk of TSS. I’m not telling women not to use them, but I do want to make people aware of the symptoms so they seek urgent medical help if they experience them.
Mum has since been to thank the first doctor who referred me to hospital. He saved my life. I dread to think what could’ve happened if I’d gone home. Eight months on, I use sanitary pads and if I want to go swimming I use a menstrual cup. They’re slightly more inconvenient than tampons, but I’ll never put myself at risk again. I fell dangerously ill so quickly. It made me realise that you never know what can happen. Now I make the most of every day.