The 18-year-old was looking forward to a trip away with her friends – but nothing could have prepared her for what was to follow.
IT was a scorching hot day in June 2017 when I first started feeling unwell.
I’d finished my final AS Level exam at Marlborough Science Academy in St Alban’s the day before and was basking in the sun with some school friends when I felt a headache coming on.
I pushed it to one side, determined that nothing would get in the way of our upcoming weekend getaway to Amsterdam. We’d had it planned for months as an end-of-year celebration, and I was so excited.
It was a Thursday afternoon, which meant I had a shift at the local leisure centre where I worked as a receptionist, and though I was feeling under the weather I knew I needed the cash for my holiday.
So, reluctantly waving goodbye to my friends, I set off for work.
But by the time I’d finished the four-hour shift, my symptoms had worsened considerably.
I came home feeling nauseous and faint with a pounding headache, but dismissed it as sunstroke.
I’d spent a long time in the sun that day and, feeling my high temperature, my mum Karina, 48, a primary school teacher, agreed.
She suggested a cold shower and some paracetamol.
I spent the whole of Friday in bed, hoping to sleep it off, but that evening I lay awake shaking.
By Saturday morning, I was drenched in sweat.
Then I began suffering diarrhoea and vomiting, despite not having eaten since Thursday.
I felt terrible, but I’d never had sunstroke before and after a quick Google my symptoms seemed a perfect match – headache, dizziness and confusion, loss of appetite and feeling sick.
It was my dad Mark’s 51st birthday that day and I didn’t want to make a big fuss, so I purposefully downplayed how bad I felt to my parents, assuring them I was fine as they headed out for a meal.
But at 4am on Sunday morning I woke up desperate for the toilet.
I tried to run for the bathroom but I didn’t make it.
Instead, I collapsed suddenly in a heap on the bathroom floor, losing all control over my bodily functions and blacking out for a couple of seconds.
When I came around I was in agony.
I desperately tried to call out for mum but I was so weak I couldn’t muster a sound.
Luckily mum must have heard me fall because she rushed straight in.
I drifted in and out of consciousness as she called 999.
The next thing I knew, I was forced to slide down the stairs to get to the ambulance – I was too weak to stand up.
I was whisked straight to Watford General Hospital where I was rushed into intensive care.
Overwhelmed and delirious, I asked the doctor if I was going to die.
“We’ll do the best we can,” she replied grimly.
After that I must have blacked out because the next thing I remember is waking up in hospital surrounded by doctors.
My temperature was sky high but I felt freezing and medics were prodding and poking me in a desperate attempt to find the source of the problem.
I don’t remember feeling scared.
Everything had escalated so fast that I could barely take it in.
Though I wasn’t aware at the time, my internal organs had begun to shut down.
At just 17 years old, my life hung in the balance.
While doctors ran endless tests, mum and dad stayed by my side trying to keep me positive despite having been told my chance of survival stood at just 30 per cent.
The day flew by in a blur until my grandma turned up at the hospital and immediately placed her hands on my head and began praying.
It was then that my confusion turned to fear.
I was weak, helpless and scared when doctors asked, late on Sunday evening, if I’d ever used tampons. Tampons?!
It seemed such an odd question.
Yes, I’d been using tampons for a few years.
But the next morning the relevance of the question became startlingly clear.
A doctor announced I have toxic shock syndrome.
My blank expression must have given away my confusion.
“It’s caused by a build-up of bacteria inside your body and was almost certainly contracted through tampon use,” he went on.
I couldn’t grasp what I’d been told.
I’d never even heard of toxic shock syndrome, let alone guessed that tampons had put me here, fighting for my life.
Mum was in the room at the time and I looked at her in disbelief.
“But I’m so hygienic,” I insisted, starting to feel a little embarrassed.
Like all my friends, and millions of other women, I started using tampons in my early teens.
I changed them often and never left them in overnight, even accidentally.
Yet somehow, without me ever knowing, harmful bacteria had built up inside my body – with near-fatal consequences.
Even with a diagnosis my nightmare was far from over.
While doctors continued to battle the toxic infection the skin on my hands and feet hardened and dried up painfully.
The next day, it had begun to peel off and horrifyingly, when I reached down to touch it, the skin came away in huge strips.
Oh my God, I thought. I didn’t feel like I was looking at my own body.
And when my friends came to visit, they squirmed when I showed them the photos.
“Urgh, you look like a lizard!” they squealed.
It was only when my eldest sister Jalna, 30, stopped by a few days later that I understood how close I’d really come to dying. She’d had a call from mum saying I wouldn’t make it through the night.
The gravity of the situation suddenly dawned on me.
If I’d waited a few hours longer to get help, I almost certainly wouldn’t have made it.
I couldn’t believe my luck.
Though I was now out of the danger zone, it would be a long road to recovery.
I was usually such an independent and strong-willed person so I hated depending on nurses to help me wash and go to the toilet.
Finally, after eight days, I was discharged from hospital but ordered to rest in bed for the next couple of months.
I missed over a month of school while the rest of my friends prepared for Year 13 and I was eventually forced to drop one of my three A Levels – Government and Politics – and continue with just Psychology and P.E.
A potentially fatal condition which can cause organ failure and long-term organ damage…
Toxic shock syndrome (TSS) is a rare but potentially fatal condition caused by bacteria getting into the body and releasing harmful toxins.
Your condition will deteriorate rapidly and the infection can cause organ failure, or eventually death, if not treated immediately.
TSS is caused by either Staphylococcus or Staphylococcus bacteria getting into the body and releasing toxins.
These bacteria live harmlessly on the skin, nose and mouth – but deeper penetration means they can damage the skin’s tissue and prevent your organs working properly.
Risk factors for toxic shock syndrome include:
- Using tampons: especially if you leave one in for longer than the recommended time (normally eight hours maximum).
- Using female barrier contraceptives: such as a diaphragm or contraceptive cap.
- A break in your skin: such as a cut, burn, boil, insect bite or surgical wound.
- Giving birth.
- Heavy nosebleeds: if treated by nasal packing.
- Impetigo, cellulitis or throat infections: and any other Staphylococcal or Streptococcal infections.
Symptoms of the illness include:
- A fever and high temperature: of 39C (102F) or above
- Flu-like symptoms: headache, chills, muscle ache, sore throat, cough etc
- Feeling and/or being sick
- A widespread, sunburn-like rash
- Redness in the whites of your eyes, lips and tongue
- Dizziness and/or fainting
- Difficulty breathing
If you have a combination of the above symptoms you should contact your GP, the out-of-hours service, or NHS 111 for advice.
If you’re wearing a tampon, remove it straight away and if the symptoms are severe and/or these are getting worse rapidly, go to your nearest A&E department or call 999.
Before I got toxic shock syndrome I loved the gym and was an avid dancer.
But my near-death experience cost me my flexibility and stamina too.
When I tried going back to the gym months later I found I got out of breath easily and became frustrated at myself quickly, unable to perform at the level I had before.
I now get anxious about catching little sniffles, fearing it could be something much worse.
I’m extra careful about my tampon use, only ever wearing one if I absolutely have to, and sticking to pads at other times.
But in spite of the effect it’s had on my mind and body, I’m determined to put my ordeal behind me and move on with my life.
Next year I’m even embarking on a dance tour which will take me all around the world.
I want more girls to be aware about the risks of using tampons, and the danger of toxic shock to be clearer on tampon packaging.
I hope that sharing my experience can help other women recognise the warning signs and symptoms and ensure that no one dies at the hands of a tampon – as I so nearly did.
Jess’s mum Karina said: “Watching Jess almost die was traumatising.
"I’d just lost my mum when she fell ill and I couldn’t bear the thought of losing Jess too.
“We couldn’t believe how quickly she deteriorated before our eyes and when doctors told me there was only a 30 per cent chance of her pulling through I thought that was it.
“I’m so thankful that Jess made it but I’m also angry at the lack of awareness about toxic shock syndrome and hope tampon manufacturers will step up to make sure no other women have to go through what Jess did.”
Earlier this year a teen who almost died from tampon-related toxic shock syndrome shared her symptoms as a warning to other women.
Meanwhile a model had her right leg amputated after "flu" turned out to be deadly toxic shock syndrome from a tampon.
Last month toxic shock syndrome from a tampon left a waitress on death’s door after it was mistaken for a sore throat.
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