WATCH | Modern Medicine: Life after bacterial meningitis - 'I am myself again and I am living freely'

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  • Tylo Sargeant once had dreams of becoming an Olympic sprinter, but those dreams were dashed in February 2015 when she contracted bacterial meningitis.
  • She survived the odds but was left paralysed from the waist down, struggling with incontinence.
  • But a neurostimulator device has given her her life back, and she's making the most of her second beginning.

Six years ago, first-year university student Tylo Sargeant's life went from normal to nightmare in an instant. The then 19-year-old began to feel ill in her accounting class on 17 February 2015. She recalled suddenly being freezing cold despite the warm temperature outside.

Not knowing what was wrong, Tylo excused herself from class and returned to her residence to rest. About six hours later, when she woke up, she couldn't move. In a state of sheer panic and confusion, Tylo called her mother, Mona.

"I immediately rushed to her. When I got to her dorm, I could smell she was so sick, her temperature was high, and she couldn't walk at that stage. I immediately took her to the hospital," Mona told News24. "The doctor said something is very wrong with her; something is eating her white blood cells. I didn't realise they already thought she wouldn't make it through the night," Mona said.

Mona adds:

I remember I just started praying.

She initially thought Tylo had tonsillitis, but the grave diagnosis came. Her daughter had contracted bacterial meningitis. After a few days in ICU, she woke up unaware that her life had changed forever.

Tylo had a stroke in her spinal cord, and the bacteria caused damage to the nerves around her sacral bone. It left her paralysed from the abdomen down and with a non-functional colon and bladder.

"When I woke up, I didn't know what had happened. I was confused, coming in and out of a coma. Still, a doctor stood over me, and he said, 'Girl, congratulations for surviving but unfortunately you are paralysed now'," Tylo recalled.

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But despite the devastating news, Tylo said she was grateful to be alive and faith kept her going during dark times.

"Before meningitis, something was missing in faith, which I only realised afterwards. The close relationship I have with God today, I didn't have before I was diagnosed," she said.

The rocky road to recovery

Tylo spent four months at the Steve Biko Academic Hospital in Pretoria before moving to a rehabilitation centre. Determined to regain control of her life, Tylo set her mind on learning to walk again. She saw the light at the end of a long dark tunnel of recovery through intense physiotherapy, grit and perhaps some divine intervention. And after two years, she was able to walk again without any assistance.

"It took me a while to gain my strength. However, I still can't use my toes properly. I also can't use my calves very well at the moment. The muscles haven't regained their full strength. Some of the nerves aren't working yet… My body is not as strong as it was before meningitis. I am still learning how to walk properly today. I look normal, but there is still a lot I need to work on," she said.

modern medicine, tylo sargeant, bacterial meningit
Tylo Sargeant has survived bacterial meningitis. She is grateful for the neurostimulator which has helped her take back control of her life.
News24 Nomvelo Chalumbira
modern medicine, tylo sargeant, bacterial meningit
Tylo keeps the hospital bracelet from her surgery in her Bible.
News24 Nomvelo Chalumbira
tylo sargeant, bacterial meningitis, medtronic, ne
Tylo Sargeant once had dreams of becoming an Olympic sprinter, but those dreams were dashed in February 2015 when she contracted bacterial meningitis.
News24 Nomvelo Chalumbira

Before meningitis, Tylo had ambitions of becoming a professional sprinter and dreamt of representing South Africa at the Olympics someday. However, due to her limitations, she has settled on hiking to stay active.

"I like hiking because I love being active, but due to my limitations now, this is as good as it gets. It's a way of clearing my mind and feeling free. Every time I hike, I see an improvement, so it's also a way to measure how I get stronger every single time," she told News24.

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But despite making many strides with her paralysis, she still faced another hurdle – the lack of bladder and bowel control. At the time, she wore a permanent catheter.

The first three years after her diagnosis were challenging and isolating. Tylo became introverted and spent a lot of time at home, scared of having an accident in public.

"I was just around the house because that is the only place I felt safe. I was terrified and embarrassed by what might happen. For about a year, I walked around with adult diapers. So, I didn't want to put myself in situations where something might go wrong," she said.

When she finally returned to campus to complete her studies, Tylo's fear of incontinence was so extreme she would dehydrate and starve herself during the day to keep her from having an accident.

She said:

It's as if your bladder can steal a lot of your happiness, your confidence and a part of you.

New lease on life

Her struggle lasted for three years, until 2018 when a family member told her about the Medtronic InterStim neurostimulator. The recharge-free system was implanted in Tylo's hip with wires connected to her spine. The device electrically stimulates the sacral nerve to help normalise neural communication between the bladder and brain and between the bowel and brain.

Caring Daisies, a Pretoria-based NGO, helped to fund her life-altering surgeries. And the device has given Tylo her life back.

"The moment I got out of surgery, I remember one of the people came and put the device on, and I immediately felt sensation. And it was the first time in three years that I felt pulses through my body, and I was just really excited," she said. The device has also helped improve her mobility. The adventurous Tylo told News24 she went for a run as soon as she could after getting the implant.

"Funny enough, I went jogging even though I looked horrible. I couldn't jog properly and was still very weak. But I just wanted to run without worrying about my bladder. Then I called my friends to go drink something afterwards," she said laughing.

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After getting a new lease on life, she's made sure to spend quality time with her family and friends. Her faith and her family got her through one of the most challenging times of her life, Tylo told News24.

Her mom described her recovery as miraculous.

"God's grace was immense, and I am just so thankful for her being with me still and living her life in full… I knew this was God's child. She's a miracle in my home," Mona said.

The 25-year-old is now looking to her future which she hopes to fill with many more memories with her family and friends. She hopes to travel more and fulfil her dream of skydiving and doing long camping hikes with her boyfriend. In addition to continuing on her road to recovery physically, Tylo is working on acquiring more academic qualifications to become a qualified forensic auditor. And she's also working on a book detailing her life story, hoping to inspire others.

"I am myself again and I am living freely. Before meningitis, I was never scared of anything, I was very outgoing, I was very strong, and now I feel like that person again," Tylo said.

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