Psychiatric nurse reveals her 'anxiety' was actually a rare brain bug

Nurse, 24, with brain inflammation condition encephalitis reveals doctors put symptoms down to stress for MONTHS before she was diagnosed and placed in a coma after collapsing at home

  • Student nurse Jenn Wiles, 24, was hit by sudden panic attack in May 2017
  • Doctors put her symptoms down to stress and prescribed antidepressants 
  • Months later she collapsed at home and suffered a seizure  
  • She was diagnosed with encephalitis, a potentially fatal inflammation of brain 

A psychiatric nurse whose anxiety was dismissed as a sign of stress revealed she was diagnosed with brain inflammation virus encephalitis after months of complaining to doctors about her symptoms. 

Jenn Wiles, 24, of Stockton-On-Tees, County Durham, had been having the ‘time of her life’ studying at the University of Salford, Greater Manchester, when she was hit by a sudden panic attack after going to a concert with friends in May 2017. 

She began feeling increasingly anxious, leading doctors, who put her symptoms down to university stress, to prescribe antidepressants.  

That December, she had a strange episode while at her job at a pub, where she had to steady herself against the till as the ceiling had begun to blur. 

The next thing she remembers is waking up in a hospital a month later, having been diagnosed with encephalitis – a potentially fatal inflammation of the brain.  

Jenn Wiles, 24, of Stockton-On-Tees, County Durham, had been having the ‘time of her life’ studying at the University of Salford, Greater Manchester, when she was hit by a sudden panic attack after going to a concert with friends in May 2017 

That December, the ceiling had begun to blur and she had to steady herself against the counter at the bar she worked at and was taken to hospital by ambulance the following morning, where she stayed for three months (pictured in hospital)

Jenn, who works as a psychiatric nurse (pictured), said her anxiety was dismissed as a sign of stress revealed she was diagnosed with brain inflammation virus encephalitis after months of complaining to doctors about her symptoms

Speaking out on World Encephalitis Day to raise awareness of the condition, Jenn said: ‘I’d been in a coma all over Christmas and the New Year. The first time doctors attempted to wake me up, I was unresponsive. 

‘They told my family I was fighting for my life and may not make the night. We’re a very close family, so it tears me apart to think they’d been told that.’

Before falling ill, Jenn had been enjoying life, training to become a nurse and sharing a student house with friends.

‘I was having the best of times,’ she added. ‘I loved my course and had never even broken a bone.’ 

But in May 2017, she suffered her first panic attack, completely out of the blue. 

Looking back, she believes that was the point at which everything began to change. 

After the ceiling blurring at work, the next thing Jenn remembers is coming around in hospital a month later and her family filled in the blanks 

She recalled: ‘I’d been out to a concert and when I got home, I had a full-blown panic attack, which was really frightening. 

‘I told myself it was nothing, probably caused by having drunk some alcohol, but over the next few months, I started getting panic attacks regularly, as much as once a week. 

What is encephalitis?

Encephalitis is an uncommon but serious condition in which the brain becomes inflamed. It can be life threatening and requires urgent treatment in hospital. 

It sometimes starts off with flu-like symptoms, such as a high temperature and a headache, with more serious symptoms over hours, days or weeks, including: 

  • confusion or disorientation 
  • seizures or fits
  • changes in personality and behaviour 
  • difficulty speaking
  • weakness or loss of movement in some parts of the body
  • loss of consciousness 

It’s not always clear what causes it, but it can be caused by viral infections (several common viruses can spread to the brain and cause encephalitis in rare cases), a problem with the immune system or bacterial or fungal infections (much rarer cause than viral infections). 

Some types of encephalitis are spread by mosquitoes, ticks and mammals. 

Encephalitis needs to be treated in hospital and the earlier the treatment is started, the more successful it’s likely to be. It depends on the underlying cause, but may include: 

  • antiviral medicines
  • steroid injections
  • treatments to help control the immune system 
  • antibiotics or antifungal medicines
  • painkillers to reduce discomfort or a high temperature
  • medicine to control seizures or fits
  • support with breathing, such as oxygen through a face mask or a breathing machine (ventilator) 

People may need to stay in hospital for a few days to several weeks or months. 

Some people eventually make a full recovery, although this can be a long and frustrating process, while others never make a full recovery and are left with long-term problems caused by damage to their brain.

Common complications include: 

  • memory loss
  • frequent seizures or fits 
  • personality and behavioural changes
  • problems with attention, concentration, planning and problem solving
  • persistent tiredness 

Source: NHS 

‘Where I’d always been a positive and jovial person, I realised I’d changed and had started to feel much more anxious all the time.’ 

Consulting a GP, Jenn was told her heightened anxiety was likely caused by the stress of her degree.

She was prescribed antidepressants, but could not shake the feeling that something else was going on.

She said: ‘There’d been a big shift in my personality. I just had this feeling of impending doom, like something bad was going to happen and I was tearful all the time.’   

In the months that followed, Jenn went back and forth to the doctors, who remained convinced she had anxiety and stress.

By the end of the year, she was still not feeling right.

Then, on 15 December, she went to work as a barmaid in a local pub – but during her shift, her vision began to blur.

Terrifyingly, the next thing she remembers is coming to in hospital in January 2018.

Medical staff, friends and family – including her mother Wendy, 51, father Brian, 54, and brother Richard, 18 – have since filled in the gaps, so she knows that she left work early that day and went home to sleep.

Still unwell when she awoke at around 6am the following morning, she phoned 111, the non-emergency NHS number.

‘Apparently, while I was on the phone, I started having seizures,’ she said.

Jenn was raced to Warrington Hospital by ambulance and taken to intensive care.

There, medics ran a series of tests, including lumbar punctures – where a needle is inserted into the spinal canal to test the surrounding fluid.

The following day, December 18, she was diagnosed with encephalitis.

According to the charity Encephalitis Society, the condition, which affects an estimated 6,000 people in the UK every year, can either be caused by an infection, or by the immune system attacking the brain in error.

Depending on type, symptoms can include a high temperature, neck stiffness, aversion to bright lights, seizures, hallucinations, uncharacteristic behaviour and memory loss.

Following her diagnosis, Jenn was placed in an induced coma.

Five days later, doctors carried out an MRI scan, during which she had more seizures, and her family were then taken to what her mother called ‘The Bad News’ room, where they were told she may not make it.

‘The doctors said that even if I did survive, there was a risk I might be severely disabled,’ said Jenn.

Thankfully, medics eventually managed to bring her round on January 2 – but she still does not remember anything until January 18, by which time she had been transferred to the neurorehabilitation ward of James Cook University, Middlesbrough.

Initially, she was unable to walk, talk or swallow.

‘My first memories of that time are still a bit foggy,’ she said. ‘I was disorientated, and I kept ripping my feeding tube out because it was irritating me.

‘I do remember the first word I said was “bath”. That made everyone cry when they realised I would be able to talk again.’

Doctors warned Jenn to expect be in hospital undergoing rehabilitation for another four to six months.

Jenn was discharged from hospital on March 8, nearly three months after she was admitted, after making remarkable progress and returned to university in June, graduating six months after the rest of her course (pictured) 

When Jenn was admitted to intensive care following seizures, doctors told her family she was ‘fighting for her life’ and ‘may not make the night’, Jenn said that she and her family are very close and it ‘tears her apart’ to think they were told that (pictured at graduation with her father)

But, determined to beat the odds, she made remarkable progress, with the help of occupational therapy, speech and language therapy and physiotherapy.

She said: ‘With the incredible support from my family and the unbelievable dedication of the rehab team at the hospital, I found my determination to get better.

‘I wasn’t prepared to accept my life was going to be so limited and so by the February, I could walk and talk again.’

On March 8 – almost three months after she had been admitted – Jenn was discharged from hospital.

Remarkably, rather than defer an entire year, she was able to return to university in June and qualified in March , just six months later than the rest of her original course.

Though she had made a physical recovery, she found that encephalitis left her with emotional scars.

Jenn said to ‘wasn’t prepared’ to accept her life was going to be limited and was determined to get better and could walk and talk again by February and returned to university to finish her course just four months later (pictured graduating) 

‘When I came out of hospital, I was scared of my own shadow,’ she said. ‘I’d lived a life not worrying about anything and if I ever heard about something like this, it was on television and something that happened to other people, not me.

‘I ended up having some counselling to help me come to terms with the shock of it all.’

Now, working as a nurse and having found love with her boyfriend of one year, Jordan, 26, Jenn is feeling stronger than ever.

By sharing her story, she wants to raise awareness of the Encephalitis Society, and offer hope to other survivors.

Jenn, who has had a tattoo of the Stone Roses lyrics, ‘She’ll carry on through, she’s like a waterfall’ to remind her of her strength, said: ‘It’s really important for people to know about encephalitis and its warning signs, because before I was diagnosed, I had no idea about it.

‘I also want people who are going through it to know there is light at the end of the tunnel, and you can come back from it to live a happy and successful life.’

  • February 22, 2021, is World Encephalitis Day. Visit www.worldencephalitisday.org for more information.   

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