Mary Kent needed time out last month and headed off to celebrate a friend’s birthday. Photos of the 26-year-old marketing and sales manager show her laughing, relaxing in five-star resorts and dining at luxury restaurants during her five-day holiday, unaware a deadly parasite was taking hold inside her body.
“I came back and I was just feeling achy and tired, I had fevers and I just thought it was the flu. But a week after I started looking quite white, pale and not being able to function normally. I was having to go home from work.”
She visited her GP on July 4 – nine days after her holiday ended – and he, too, diagnosed flu.
“Then it just got worse – I couldn’t walk, it felt like I had been burned. It felt like I was just absolutely burnt and someone was touching all over my body, I thought maybe it was shingles.”
“It got progressively worse overnight. My family were starting to get really worried overseas.”
She returned to her doctor, who referred her to Auckland City Hospital and she went to the emergency department the next morning.
“I was crying with pain, it was like I was burnt by hot water. I was lying on the bed crying, I had blood tests, urine tests and (the doctor) said ‘nothing is showing up so we are going to have to send you home’.”
But her symptoms kept escalating the next day – to the point she couldn’t stand sheets touching her skin, or her toes rubbing together. Her skin started to bruise.
“It got to the point where I ate nothing, even swallowing something hurt. I just didn’t feel well at all. By midnight my head was throbbing, my back was sore, everything was just unbelievably sore. I held out until 5am and I called (my boss) and said ‘I need help’.”
By the time she got to ED, she was losing consciousness.
Head of neurology Dr James Cleland ordered a lumbar puncture – where spinal fluid is tested – and the test results were frightening.
She was diagnosed with eosinophilic meningitis.
Ms Kent said she had only one meal on the trip that she didn’t share with friends – a pawpaw, lettuce and coriander salad.
“I went for a nice break and it turned out to be a disaster, all from eating a salad.”
Although she was lucky the disease was caught, she was upset that the first doctor she saw at the hospital did not recognise her symptoms and act on them earlier.
Chief medical officer Dr Margaret Wilsher yesterday said: “We don’t normally comment on individual patient’s care, but acknowledge she has expressed some concern and encourage the patient to talk directly to us so we can look into it. If she is unhappy or not comfortable with that idea, we do have a complaints process that we can help her get access to.”
Ms Kent’s mother, Leanna, has returned from Kazakhstan to look after her daughter.
Ms Kent wants to warn other travellers to be wary when heading to the South Pacific.
“I am quite concerned for everyone else going over there because I wasn’t eating out on the side of the road.”
• Eosinophilic meningitis is mostly caused by ingesting the larvae of a parasite – angiostrongylus cantonensis – in raw or undercooked cooked snails, slugs, freshwater prawns, frogs, or fish.
• Infection can also occur by eating fresh produce such as lettuce that a slug carrying the parasite has crawled on.
• Once ingested, the larvae make their way into blood vessels and eventually reach the spinal cord and die. An eosinophilic reaction develops in response to the dying larvae, and spreads rapidly through spinal fluid.
• It is prevalent mainly in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Basin.