Four-year-old Aoibhe Carroll loved to go shopping with her mum, Siobhan. She adored clothes and would change her outfit twice a day. After returning home from a shopping trip she would sneak up the stairs with her bulging shopping bags hoping her dad would not notice.
Not that it would have mattered to her father Noel. She was “daddy’s girl” and could do no wrong in his eyes.
Today the Carrolls, who live in Oranmore, cherish memories like these of their beautiful eldest daughter who died five year ago this April from meningitis.
They have three children now but had two then, Aoibhe and her two-year-old brother Eimhin. Siobhan was pregnant at the time with their son Noah and had to be hospitalised because she was feeling unwell.
“I was really sick towards the end of the pregnancy,” she says. “That day I had a bad headache. I can still remember getting Aoibhe ready for naíonra [Irish Montessori pre-school] at Gaelscoil de hIde [in Oranmore] and doing her hair. She was wearing a long grey hoody with little stars ( I have it still ) and jeans. She was asking me ‘Do these match?’ She loved style.
“Noel brought her to naíonra. It was noon. I gave her a kiss and a hug and said goodbye. ‘I love you,’ she said.”
Siobhan, a former Montessori teacher who is originally from Riverside, says they knew she was expecting a boy and Aoibhe had chosen Noah’s name.
“She helped me pack my bag for hospital. She stuffed everything in. I left the bag the way it was after he was born.”
Noel brought Siobhan to hospital and she was kept in overnight to be monitored. She later rang the children to say goodnight. Aoibhe told her she was learning about Africa at school. It was 8pm on Tuesday April 1 2008.
“I said ‘Good night, I love you’ and she replied ‘I love you Mammy’. Then Noel put them to bed.”
The children were in great form, he recalls. “There was not a bother on them. Around 9pm I went back downstairs. I said I’d get a good night’s sleep. Then I heard Aoibhe cry out. She said she was feeling sick and vomited. I cleaned her up and put her back to bed. I went to bed again and she got sick again. I brought her into the bed with me.”
She felt warm. “Later she had vomiting and diarrhoea. I was a bit concerned and rang Westdoc. They said it could be a vomiting and diarrhoea bug and told me to ring back later. I first rang at 3.10am. At 4.10 I called again and talked to a doctor. They told me not to worry and to keep giving her sips of water. I brought her downstairs and we watched cartoons. She was lying in my arms.”
But when Noel looked down he noticed to his horror that her lips were a “bit blue”. He panicked and ran to a neighbour’s house. He rang Westdoc again and an ambulance.
“When the ambulance came I was freaking out,” he says. “Then Westdoc came. I jumped into the ambulance with her. The first time I rang Siobhan was when I was getting into the ambulance. They were working on Aoibhe and I could see on the monitor that it was not good. They rang for the resus [resuscitation team] and I knew it was really bad.”
Siobhan says she recalls Noel saying the ambulance crew were “working” on Aoibhe but she could not understand what he meant.
“I will always remember running out of the maternity on my own to the front door of A&E. It was pitch dark, there was not one person around. I saw the ambulance in the distance. It didn’t sink in that it [Aoibhe’s illness] was serious. I remember saying to myself somebody is really sick. I remember standing there watching it coming in. And then Noel’s face and the pandemonium.....
“I remember the consultant in A&E saying your little girl is really sick and then seeing the priest coming as we were walking in to see her. Everyone parted, there were so many doctors and she was on the bed.”
Aoibhe arrived at University Hospital Galway at 5.40am. At 7am Noel and Siobhan were told she had passed away.
They say they do not know how they managed to cope with the heartbreaking loss of their little girl.
“You question everything, God, life,” says Noel. “I’ve hundreds of questions for God. The doctors in the hospital did everything they could, it was their worst nightmare too. The speed of it all.....That evening -10 to 11 hours - later they told us what it was. If they didn’t know what chance have we of knowing?
Noah, their second son, was born on May 3, exactly a month after Aoibhe’s death. “We cried and cried and cried,” recalls Siobhan. “We were still numb from losing Aoibhe. We still don’t know how we got through it. You carry on in a daze, crying and going to the grave. I used to go two to three times a day in the beginning.
“The other three children [they later had a daughter called Sophie] helped us. Noah coming so quickly focused our minds.... After she died, Eimhin, who was two-and-a-half, wanted to get a ladder and go and see her in Heaven.”
Little things bring the memories flooding back. “One of the first times I went to the shop afterwards I was walking past her orange juice. I remember going, ‘O my god’,” recalls Siobhan. “When Eimhin started in naíonra I saw the children whose class Aoibhe should be in. They are the age she should be. They were saying ‘hi’ and I was thinking ‘Someone help me keep it together’. For two years afterwards I couldn’t go near the girls clothes section in shops. Even now [when I see something nice] I say Aoibhe would like that.”
Nine months after Aoibhe passed away the Carrolls organised a fundraiser for people affected by meningitis. “This kept us going and focused our minds on something different,” says Siobhan.
Later they set up their own national charity, the Aoibhe Carroll Trust (ACT for meningitis ). “The A also stands for Act - we want people to act if they suspect meningitis, C stands for Contact your doctor and T represents Trusting your instincts. Time is of the essence.”
Siobhan says she thought setting up the charity would be a major challenge but it has been “pretty amazing”. “People want to help. They organised a fundraiser in Donegal recently and we got money from Kildare as well. We plan to train up nurses to do awareness campaigns in schools. We offer counselling and play therapy for children who have survived meningitis or family members who have lost a sibling. We also plan long term to have support groups around Ireland and are conducting a survey about the condition. A survey carried out five years ago found that 96 per cent of the public thought a rash was the first symptom.
“World Meningitis Day is on April 24 and our aim for then is to meet the Government (we don’t receive any government funding ) and heighten awareness of the condition.”
Noel Carroll is urging people not to wait for the rash to appear because in the majority of cases there is not a rash.
“You can die within four hours of getting meningitis and people who survive may be left with long term side effects. We are trying to get people to realise the seriousness of it.”
Meningitis - the facts
Meningitis is a potentially life-threatening infection which affects the membranes that surround and protect the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis and its associated disease, septicaemia (blood poisoning ), can kill within hours and can affect anyone at any time.
People most at risk are children under five years, those aged 16 to 23 and people over 55. More than half of cases occur in children under five years of age.
Knowing the symptoms of the disease can save lives, say Noel and Siobhan Carroll. “There is a higher risk of meningitis during the winter months,” says Siobhan, the chief executive of ACT for Meningitis.
“As people spend a lot more time indoors and with close contact germs are spread more easily. Also, coming down with a cold or the ‘flu may weaken the immune system making you more susceptible to the disease.”
She outlines the symptoms may be difficult to spot as many of the earlier ones can be similar to those of flu.
“We ask people to trust their instincts and if they suspect meningitis to seek medical help immediately. Meningitis does not always produce a rash. If it does appear it will not fade under pressure. Time is of the utmost importance, meningitis can strike so quickly and can kill within hours.
Babies and infants
• Unusually sleepy/not waking for feeds
• Very irritable, does not want to be handled or picked up
• High temperature
• Limp and floppy or stiff and jerky movements
• Not feeding as much as normal/vomiting
• Not easily consoled/calmed
• Pale in colour or turning blue
• Breathing unusually fast
• Cold hands and feet
• Blotchy skin colour
• Red pin point or purplish rash (may not be present in meningitis ). This rash does not disappear when a glass is rolled over it. However in many cases of meningitis and septicaemia a rash may not appear at all. If you have any concerns or suspicions do not wait for a rash to appear.
• An unusual or high pitched cry
• A bulging soft spot on the top of the head
• Check your baby often as babies can get very ill quite quickly
• Severe headache
• High temperature
• Very sleepy
• Breathing unusually fast
• Cold hands and feet/shivering
• Pin prick rash or purple rash (may not be present in meningitis )
• Dislike of bright lights (less likely in children under three )
• Stiff neck (less likely in children in under three )
• Severe muscle pain – not happy to move about, stand or walk
• Jerky body movements, possible seizures
The ACT for Meningitis charity aims to encourage people to learn the signs and symptoms of the condition, the importance of urgent treatment and that some forms can be prevented by vaccination.
Ireland has the highest rates of meningitis infection in Europe, with over three times the average rate of the disease. There is at least one case each day in Ireland.
One in 10 people who contract meningitis will die. Survivors can be left with various after-effects including brain damage, blindness, deafness, limb loss (where septicaemia has occurred ), learning difficulties and behavioural issues.
About 300 cases are reported every year in Ireland. However, meningitis experts estimate this only represents half the true picture. Meningitis C used to be the most prevalent form of the disease in Ireland but since the introduction of the meningitis C vaccine in 1999, this strain has all but disappeared. Meningitis B now accounts for more than 80 per cent of cases of meningococcal disease. A vaccine agains this strain is being evaluated for inclusion on Ireland’s national vaccination programmme.
For further information contact (ACT for meningitis ) telephone (091 ) 782828 or log onto www.actformeningitis.ie