Helen & Richard’s Meningitis Story

Helen Cadden and Richard Murphy, aged 18 and 19 respectively, had been classmates at St Werburgh’s & St Columba’s Primary School since the age of 4.

Meningitis Stories

In early 2001, two sets of families in Chester experienced a devastating and heart-breaking tragedy. These families had known each other for years, and sadly, their teenage children, who had grown up together, both lost their lives to meningococcal disease. This cruel parallel brought immense sorrow to the community and left an indelible mark on their lives.

Helen Cadden and Richard Murphy, aged 18 and 19 respectively, had been classmates at St Werburgh’s & St Columba’s Primary School since the age of 4. Growing up together, they had formed a strong friendship. Moving on to Chester Catholic High School, their educational paths diverged as Helen chose to study Business Studies at Sheffield Hallam University, while Richard pursued Philosophy at University College London.

After just three months at university, both Helen and Richard were excelling in their courses. They had successfully integrated into their respective university communities, forging new friendships and enjoying the social aspects of university life. Their educational journeys had taken them to different parts of the country, but their friendship remained intact.

Helen’s meningitis story

“Helen was the type of girl that everyone got on with, she was known for being helpful, considerate and friendly. She had settled in so well at university and was on great form when we all spent Christmas and New Year together. She was telling us how much she was enjoying her course and how well everything was going.”

On 6 January, 2001, Helen returned to university after the Christmas break to prepare for her upcoming exams. Unfortunately, on the Sunday before her exams, she started feeling unwell with flu-like symptoms, including a fever, vomiting, and body aches. Helen contacted the resident warden at midnight, seeking medical assistance, but was only diagnosed over the phone by a doctor from the out of hours GP service.

Her friends stayed with her until early morning, and the university had plans to phone her in the morning to check on her. However, when they called at 9am and received no response, they assumed she had gone to her exam and did not check on her. It was not until lunchtime that a flatmate found Helen in a critical state in the hallway and called for an ambulance.

She was declared dead shortly after the paramedics arrived. This incident raised various concerns with the medical, university, and ambulance service systems, as highlighted in the coroner’s report.

Helen left three brothers who thought the world of her. “She was the life and soul of the house and the boys adored her, she was the only girl and they loved her so much,” said Anne.

“It’s a terrible disease and can affect people so quickly. Despite all the awareness, the symptoms are still being missed. The key is to get medical professionals, universities, parents, students – everyone – to be more aware of what to look out for. Parents know their children so if they are particularly
unwell with any of the symptoms, they need to act quickly and insist that their child is treated with antibiotics. “I would never want any parent to go through what we all went through. The circumstances were just so awful. However, the only real long-term solution is to find a vaccine for Group B Meningitis.”

Helen passed away on Monday, 8 January due to meningococcal septicaemia. At her funeral, her long-time friend Richard Murphy delivered a reading. Tragically, after seven weeks, Richard also succumbed to this dreadful disease.

Richard’s meningitis story

In February 2001, Cathy and Paul’s only son Richard, a university student, fell ill and called his parents to express that he had never felt so unwell in his life. He experienced severe limb pain, aching throughout his body, and a debilitating headache. Concerned, his parents contacted his halls of residence to check on his condition. As his symptoms worsened, the university doctor attended to him after his surgery and diagnosed him with tonsillitis and gastro-enteritis. However, later that evening, Richard’s condition rapidly deteriorated, prompting him to call a Locum GP who immediately determined that he had meningitis.

Aware of the potential diagnosis, Richard contacted a blue light ambulance, but none was available. Consequently, he and a friend had to walk to the nearby University College Hospital. Upon arrival, the receptionist assigned them to the “minors” waiting room instead of the “majors” area due to the absence of a functioning triage system. This meant that they had to wait for several hours until they could see a doctor.

Once Richard finally saw the doctor, he quickly requested the room’s light to be turned off due to his unbearable headache and sensitivity to light. Unfortunately, shortly after this was done, Richard collapsed on the floor.

Cathy, his mother, said: “We got a phone call from Richard’s university asking us to get on the next train to the hospital as his condition was critical. But by the time we got there it was too late.”

After being transferred to the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, Richard was kept alive with antibiotics on a life support machine for a duration of three days, specifically from the day of transfer until 26 February. This was made possible due to Richard’s possession of a donor card.

Cathy said: ” It is vitally important to find a vaccine; we all need a vaccine to help put an end to these repeating tragedies. Time is of the essence – too many lives have been lost. Raising the awareness of the symptoms is crucial. It is my view that the doctors need to know more about how to diagnose meningitis too.

There were four inquiries into Richard’s death and one inquest – the verdict from the inquest of gross medical negligence – will always live with me. His life could have been saved; the results revealed that if he was only given the correct diagnosis right from the very beginning, there would be a 95% chance that he could still be alive.”

Throughout all of these last 23 years we have been supported by Steve Dayman, who having lost his own son Spencer, really understands what we have been through. If he is visiting the North West of England, he will go out of his way to visit us. We, in turn, follow and support all his great work with the various meningitis charities he has founded. It was an honour to see our children’s names on the Wall of Remembrance at the opening ceremony of the Spencer Dayman Meningitis laboratories in the University of Bristol.

The Cadden and Murphy families hope by sharing Helen and Richard’s stories helps to raise awareness of this dreadful disease and to ensure that no one else has to go through what happened to Helen and Richard, their families and friends.

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