A 23-year-old left paralysed after she contracted meningitis is walking for the first time in nearly five years.
Jemma Pressman, from Eastleigh, Hampshire, has described her ’emotional’ journey back to mobility as ‘like being reborn’.
Miss Pressman spent more than a year in rehabilitation at a hospital in Southampton and had to learn everything, from the ‘little things to the massive things’.
And moving video footage, released to give fellow victims hope, shows her using a metal walking frame to help her take a few steps.
She said: ‘Mum was so pleased when she saw me walking, she whipped out her camera and started filming… it was very emotional. She just couldn’t believe it.’
Miss Pressman fell victim to meningitis – which can strike with similar symptoms as ‘fresher’s flu’ – and encephalitis, swelling of the brain, in September 2013 while studying at Leicester University.
The law student, who was getting ready for her second year, developed a fever and vomiting – but the then 19-year-old wasn’t concerned.
Miss Pressman, who had to give up studying, spent a year relearning how to walk in Western Community Hospital, Southampton.
Speaking for the first time about her ordeal, she said: ‘I couldn’t walk at this stage. I had to learn how to speak, eat, brush my hair – all sorts.’
And when she was finally discharged, in October 2014, going back to live with her mother, she realised her mental health had been affected by her ordeal.
Miss Pressman added: ‘When you’re in hospital, you don’t feel different. But when you get home, it reminds you how life once was.
‘I was so, so scared to go out. I felt like I couldn’t. I was stuck in a wheelchair.
‘On top of this, all my muscles wasted away, I had to build them up again, it was like being reborn.’
Then, after intensive rehabilitation, a short while ago Miss Pressman started walking. At first slowly, she gradually built up her steps.
Now, with the aid of a metal walking frame, she can move about her home.
Miss Pressman said: ‘I’m feeling a lot more confident. Initially, I didn’t realise how awkward I looked, walking about.
‘I was scared I would fall, but I’m not anymore.
‘I am positive about the future. I can walk around indoors. One of my goals is to be functional and get things out the fridge. It’s what I aim for.
‘You always get moments where you think, “Why did it happen to me? My life was fine before, I was doing everything right.” But you can’t let that hold you back.’
Miss Pressman, who now hopes to train on the job to become a lawyer, remembers how she started feeling sick on the night of September 13, 2013.
Her mother, Shev, thought it was mumps and drove 130 miles to collect her and take her back to Hampshire to look after her.
Miss Pressman said: ‘I had a stiff neck, I ached, I was vomiting and felt generally unwell.
‘Concerned, literally the minute she finished work, Mum drove straight up to collect me.
‘I thought I was feeling better, but in the early hours of the Saturday morning, I started being sick.
‘I had a really bad headache, I couldn’t stand light and I ached so much.’
Her mother, 51, dialled the NHS non-emergency number, 111, and was told to take her straight to casualty at the Royal Hampshire County Hospital in Winchester.
Miss Pressman added: ‘The last thing I remember is speaking to the triage nurse at the hospital. But, after that, things went downhill quickly.’
Placed in an induced coma, Jemma was taken for a CT scan. There, doctors realised something was drastically wrong.
Miss Pressman said: ‘Medics realised there was swelling in my brain and they rushed me in an ambulance from Hampshire County Hospital to the bigger Southampton General Hospital.
‘They put a drain in my brain to reduce the pressure, leaving it in for about three weeks. Afterwards, when I was taken out of sedation, they realised I had meningitis and encephalitis.
‘I don’t know if the two illnesses were linked. Maybe because I was run down, it was easier to catch two infections.’
So she could be closer to her mother, Miss Pressman was transferred back to Winchester, spending nearly four months in intensive care, reliant on a ventilator.
She added: ‘This period of my life is very hazy. I was deeply confused and didn’t understand why I was in a hospital bed.
‘Initially paralysed by the infection, when the feeling came back in my right side, after a few weeks I had to learn to swallow, make sounds and even blink again.’
She now recalls her horrific ordeal at universities across the UK to try and encourage other students to get the MenACWY vaccine, available on the NHS.
Older teenagers and university students are encouraged to get the vaccine to protect themselves against the deadly bacteria.
This group is thought to be at a higher risk of infection because they mix closely with lots of new people – some of whom may unknowingly carry the meningococcal bacteria at the back of their noses and throats.
For more information about meningitis, visit Meningitis Now – who Miss Pressman is an ambassador for.