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Nurse’s ‘anxiety’ was actually a rare brain bug that left her in a coma

A psychiatric nurse has revealed how her ‘anxiety’ was actually the warning sign of a rare brain bug.

And it left Jenn Wiles in a coma and stole a month of her memory.

The 24-year-old had been having the “time of her life” studying at the University of Salford, Greater Manchester, when she was hit by a sudden panic attack after going to a concert with friends in May 2017.

From there, she began feeling increasingly anxious, leading doctors, who put her symptoms down to university stress, to prescribe antidepressants.

That December, she had a strange episode while at her then-job in a pub, where she had to steady herself against the till as the ceiling had begun to blur.

The next thing she remembers after that is waking up in hospital a month later, having been diagnosed with encephalitis – a potentially fatal inflammation of the brain.

Speaking out on World Encephalitis Day to raise awareness of the condition, Jenn, of Ingleby Barwick, Stockton-On-Tees, said: “I’d been in a coma all over Christmas and the New Year. The first time doctors attempted to wake me up, I was unresponsive.”

She said: “They told my family I was fighting for my life and may not make the night. We’re a very close family, so it tears me apart to think they’d been told that.”

Before falling ill, Jenn had been enjoying life, training to become a nurse and sharing a student house with friends.

“I was having the best of times,” she added. “I loved my course and had never even broken a bone.”

But in May 2017, she suffered her first panic attack, completely out of the blue. Looking back, she believes that was the point at which everything began to change.



Jenn in hospital

She recalled: “I’d been out to a concert and when I got home, I had a full-blown panic attack, which was really frightening.

“I told myself it was nothing, probably caused by having drunk some alcohol, but over the next few months, I started getting panic attacks regularly, as much as once a week.”

She continued: “Where I’d always been a positive and jovial person, I realised I’d changed and had started to feel much more anxious all the time.”

Consulting a GP, Jenn was told her heightened anxiety was likely caused by the stress of her degree.

She was prescribed antidepressants, but could not shake the feeling that something else was going on.

She said: “There’d been a big shift in my personality. I just had this feeling of impending doom, like something bad was going to happen and I was tearful all the time.”

In the months that followed, Jenn went back and forth to the doctors, who remained convinced she had anxiety and stress. By the end of the year, she was still not feeling right.

Then, on 15 December, she went to work as a barmaid in a local pub – but during her shift, her vision began to blur.

Terrifyingly, the next thing she remembers is coming to in hospital in January 2018.

Medical staff, friends and family – including her mum Wendy, 51, dad Brian, 54, and brother Richard, 18 – have since filled in the gaps, so she knows that she left work early that day and went home to sleep.

Still unwell when she awoke at around 6am the following morning, she phoned 111, the non-emergency NHS number.

“Apparently, while I was on the phone, I started having seizures,” she said.



Jenn in hospital

Jenn was raced to Warrington Hospital by ambulance and taken to intensive care. There, medics ran a series of tests, including lumbar punctures – where a needle is inserted into the spinal canal to test the surrounding fluid.

The following day, December 18, she was diagnosed with encephalitis.

According to the charity Encephalitis Society, the condition, which affects an estimated 6,000 people in the UK every year, can either be caused by an infection, or by the immune system attacking the brain in error.

Depending on type, symptoms can include a high temperature, neck stiffness, aversion to bright lights, seizures, hallucinations, uncharacteristic behaviour and memory loss.

Following her diagnosis, Jenn was placed in an induced coma.

Five days later, doctors carried out an MRI scan, during which she had more seizures, and her family were then taken to what her mum calls ‘The Bad News’ room, where they were told she may not make it.

“The doctors said that even if I did survive, there was a risk I might be severely disabled,” said Jenn.

Thankfully, medics eventually managed to bring her round on January 2 – but she still does not remember anything until January 18, by which time she had been transferred to the neurorehabilitation ward of James Cook University, Middlesbrough. Initially, she was unable to walk, talk or swallow.

“My first memories of that time are still a bit foggy,” she said. “I was disorientated, and I kept ripping my feeding tube out because it was irritating me.

“I do remember the first word I said was ‘bath.’ That made everyone cry when they realised I would be able to talk again.”

Doctors warned Jenn to expect be in hospital undergoing rehabilitation for another four to six months.



Jenn graduating

But, determined to beat the odds, she made remarkable progress, with the help of occupational therapy, speech and language therapy and physiotherapy.

“With the incredible support from my family and the unbelievable dedication of the rehab team at the hospital, I found my determination to get better,” she said.

“I wasn’t prepared to accept my life was going to be so limited and so by the February, I could walk and talk again.”

On March 8 – almost three months after she had been admitted – Jenn was discharged from hospital.

Remarkably, rather than defer an entire year, she was able to return to university in June and qualified in March , just six months later than the rest of her original course.

Though she had made a physical recovery, she found that encephalitis left her with emotional scars.

“When I came out of hospital, I was scared of my own shadow,” she said. “I’d lived a life not worrying about anything and if I ever heard about something like this, it was on television and something that happened to other people, not me.

“I ended up having some counselling to help me come to terms with the shock of it all.”



Jenn graduating, pictured here with her dad

Now, working as a nurse and having found love with her boyfriend of one year, Jordan, 26, Jenn is feeling stronger than ever.

By sharing her story, she wants to raise awareness of the Encephalitis Society, and offer hope to other survivors.

Jenn, who has had a tattoo of the Stone Roses lyrics, ‘She’ll carry on through, she’s like a waterfall’ to remind her of her strength, said: “It’s really important for people to know about encephalitis and its warning signs, because before I was diagnosed, I had no idea about it.

“I also want people who are going through it to know there is light at the end of the tunnel, and you can come back from it to live a happy and successful life.”

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