‘Nine, ten...eleven!’ I counted, smiling.
My son Michael, ten months, had taken his first steps just minutes earlier.
Now, he was finding his feet. Michael’s nickname was Pickle, and my sister, Michelle, then 33, had come over for her morning ‘Pickle fix.’
Standing in the lounge room, Michael tottered between our legs.
Later, I put Michael down for his nap. He slept for longer than usual so at 1pm I woke him. My good-natured bub was grisly.
His temperature was a little high, so I gave him medicine and put him in a cool bath. But at 5.30pm he was over 38 degrees, so I rushed him to our doctors.
Checking his throat, the GP said he had a virus but told me to take him to hospital if he hadn’t cooled down my 11pm.
Back home, Michael’s dad, Athol, now 46, and I worried over his flushed cheeks.
Around 9pm, our boy woke up screaming. When I carried him to the lounge room he vomited. That’s when I noticed a red spot in the crease of his leg, by his nappy. Taking it off I saw his groin was covered with a purply red rash.
‘Call an ambulance!’ I yelled to Athol, recognising the signs of meningococcal.
Passing Michael to the ambos, he went limp and the rash started spreading up to his neck.
A specialist was flown in to meet us at the hospital, but Michael was already in and out of consciousness.
‘I can’t believe this,’ I said to Athol, feeling numb with shock.
We’d gone from celebrating his first steps to fearing for his life in just one day.
Athol and I weren’t allowed in the room while the medics worked, and then our bub was transferred to another hospital without us catching a glimpse.
When I got to his new ward, I hadn’t seen him for five hours.
Pacing up and down, I couldn’t find my boy.
‘Here’s here,’ a nurse said, showing me a baby I’d walked past three times.
That’s not my son, I thought. Surely?
His body was black and he’d swollen up three times his size.
Diagnosed with meningococcal B, he was suffering from sepsis and meningitis - meaning his brain was swelling. The skin on his bottom and legs was so badly damaged he faced amputation.
Horrified, I tried to stay strong. He needs me,I thought, as he was given morphine for his pain. Put on dialysis to clean his toxic blood, Michael spent two weeks critically ill.
The painkillers were knocking him out, so doctors decided to take him off them to check he could still respond. If he didn’t react to his pain, or other stimulations, within 24 hours there was no hope of recovery.
Hours went by, but our boy lay still and silent. We called a priest and asked family to say goodbyes.
We couldn’t crowd him, so his cousin Kirsty, went in alone to play him his favourite theme song - Bear in the Big Blue House.
By now it had been 20 hours.
Suddenly, Kirsty was calling for us. He’d opened his eyes! Athol and I ran to him, but hearing our voices distressed him and we were ushered outside. It was heartbreaking, but we were so relieved.
We’ve turned a corner, I realised.
Put back in a coma, Michael was taken to a burns unit to treat his ruined skin. He was given a temporary colostomy bag to stop his wounds getting infected. At his bedside, I tried to hold it together. But one day I couldn’t hold back the sobs.
'His life will never be the same', I cried.
A month after his first steps, Michael’s legs were amputated at the knee. My beautiful baby spent five and a half months in hospital. Somehow, despite everything, he was always smiling.
Back at home, we spent four hours each day changing dressings until he healed. As he grew, he learnt to run around on his stumps with his brother Jay, now 19. He also used a wheelchair.
‘You were very sick when you were a baby,’ we told him, determined he would know his story.
Over the years he’s had different prosthetics, including ones adorned with Spiderman, Batman and his footy team, The Titans.
We felt very nervous about our boy’s first day at school. To introduce him to the class, we had a special lesson. The children sat in a circle and asked Michael questions.
‘I was sick,’ he explained confidently. ‘I’m unique.’
To our relief, they took him under their wing.
Now divorced, Athol and I are both so proud of his positive attitude, and, now 14, he presents videos on the hospital’s YouTube channel, Juiced TV.
At the moment, he’s getting used to legs with bendable knees. And he’s keen to educate people about what happened to him, especially when he hears comments in the street.
Meningococcal B ravages bodies and changes lives.
That’s why I want people to sign the that’s life! Protect Our Kids campaign for free vaccines for children.
No family should have to go through what we have.
Read more in this week's issue of that's life!