November 13, 2019

Lacey Piccott sits down on the sofa of her home in the Kilbride neighbourhood of St. John’s, as her mother takes out a collection of news articles and mementos.

They’re all memories of a time that Piccott’s family will never forget.

But, for Piccott herself, they’re relics of a time that she can’t much recall at all.

There are photos of a teenaged Piccott in a hospital bed. Doctors, family and friends are seen standing nearby.

There are pamphlets outlining the warning signs of meningitis. “Did I have a rash like that?” she asked her mom, Elaine Hamlyn.

There’s also an autographed headshot of John Travolta, signed “positive thoughts sent your way.” (“She loved John Travolta,” Hamlyn said.)

Piccott wound up in that hospital bed — and unable to remember an episode that nearly cost her life — in 2007, when she was just 16 and contracted bacterial meningitis. The fast-moving illness causes inflammation of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord.

"I really don't remember a whole lot about that day," Piccott said.

“To be completely honest… I didn't get to see myself hooked up to life support. I didn't get to see myself in a coma. But everyone that I love that surrounded me had to see all of that. So I think it was definitely harder on everybody else.”

Piccott and Hamlyn first spoke with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador a year later, in 2008, after she had fully recovered. Now, as part of the series This Is My Story, we're checking back in with the family to see what has changed in their lives since then.

Piccott, who's now 29, said it almost comes as a blessing not to remember the details of that time.

“It makes it easier on me even today because… when I think about everything that happened, I almost feel like it happened to somebody else,” she said.

Rushing to the hospital

It started in December 2006. Piccott had gotten sick in the days leading up to Christmas, with a cold she couldn't seem to shake.

On Jan. 6, 2007, Hamlyn said she repeatedly called the help line of the Janeway children’s hospital, because her daughter was so miserable.

"They said so many kids had been through the Janeway that day — it was cold and flu season," Hamlyn recalled.

"Then later in the evening... Even in a dark room, the light was hurting her eyes. And I didn't at the time know that that was a symptom of meningitis."

Piccott may not remember much of the ordeal that followed, but she remembers that early pain. "Like it was the worst migraine I've ever had in my life,” she said.

The next day — Jan. 7, 2007 — Hamlyn was taking the decorations off the Christmas tree in their living room, when she heard her daughter calling out.

“When I went in, she was having a seizure," Hamlyn said.

That’s when they called 911.

"The paramedics asked how long [Piccott] had a rash on her chest — and I didn't know she had a rash on her chest, and so it was very quick," she said.

The newest symptom tipped the paramedics to move rapidly, knowing that every second counted.

"They actually didn't go get the stretcher, they picked her up [and] carried her out into the ambulance."

Hamlyn, who climbed into the ambulance with her daughter, remembers a call that was made while en route to the Janeway.

"The paramedic was calling in her stats, and he was writing it on his gloved hand," she said. "The voice on the other end of the phone asked to repeat the figures... and he did a couple of times, and then [they] said to bypass emergency and go straight into trauma.”

Watch Lacey Piccott describe her journey:

Hamlyn said she stood in the back of the room while a medical team started working on her daughter.

"One doctor... he would yell — literally yell — at her, and she would stir, but other than that, she wasn't responding. And that's when they told me that they suspected that she had meningitis," she said.

Hamlyn said she was told they couldn’t confirm the illness because her daughter was so unstable.

"But they wanted to treat her hard and fast with medication for meningitis,” she said.

"And thank God they did it, because it did save her life."

'Like a Fred Flintstone needle'

Hamlyn remembers seeing Piccott in isolation in the pediatric intensive care unit, when some nurses and a doctor went in to treat her daughter.

"It was like a Fred Flintstone needle — it was this massive needle, and one would hold it, and the other would push the fluids in," Hamlyn said.

"So she had needles [in her] upper arms and in her groin, so they could pump it in quicker, and she blew up with all this fluid. And it was very scary."

Hamlyn said her daughter responded better than the doctors had hoped. Piccott was put in an induced coma. Three days later, the family got some good news.

"The doctor said that, at this point, all indications were that she would survive," she said. "But how she would survive — if there would be any side effects.... they didn't know at the time."

Hamlyn said Piccott was in a coma for about five days; she and her husband Paul would take turns sitting with their daughter.

"When the bells and whistles would go off from the equipment, from the monitors, [Piccott] would stir. And when we spoke to her, she settled — so she could hear our voices," Hamlyn said.

Piccott added: “I don't remember any of this, but apparently, my mom was saying to me … ‘This is the time now to ask for your dogs, because your dad is not going to say no!’”

When she came out of the coma, Piccott made the request, and she got her wish: her father found her two small, white Maltese pups, which she named Prince and Prada.

'You’re very lucky'

Piccott said she remembered waking up in the hospital and not knowing where she was.

"The first thing I saw was the light above the bed, and I just remember looking at it and thinking, 'What did my parents do to my room?'" she said.

Piccott said the nurses started asking her what day it was, and she said it was Jan. 6 — when it was actually about a week later.

"I remember the nurse saying to me… ‘You had meningitis,'" Piccott said.

"[I asked,] 'Don't people die from that?' And she had just said to me, 'You're very lucky.'"

Piccott said, at the age of 16, it was a lot to digest.

"I was definitely very confused, because the last thing I remembered was being at home in my bed, and then waking up in a totally different place, and then having doctors and nurses surrounding [me], and my parents surrounding me, crying," she said.

"I didn't remember anything up until that point. So it was very scary."

Forever grateful

Piccott survived. Then she started the long road to recovery.

"I was very weak. I couldn't lift my head, I couldn't walk, so I had to gain all of my strength back, and that took a very long time," she said.

Meningitis can cause serious side effects, including permanent scarring due to septicemia, amputations, hearing loss and cognitive impairment. Miraculously, she walked away without any issues whatsoever.

"I was definitely very lucky because, of the cases I've heard, it doesn't work out that way for everybody," she said.

Piccott teared up while talking about the impact that the Janeway has had on her life.

"I really can't even begin to say enough good things about the Janeway because, quite literally, they saved my life. And if it wasn't for how fast-acting they were and how much care they took of me, I wouldn't be here today," she said.

"I've gone on to accomplish so many things, and I really do attribute all of it to them saving my life. So I will be forever grateful."

Piccott received a special honour: she was asked to be the Janeway’s Champion Child for 2008. Part of the duties included a trip to Florida, to meet other champion children from hospitals across Canada.

"It was a really great experience. I got to meet other children who had been sick with meningitis as well, so it was really nice to meet them and hear their stories and be able to relate to somebody about all of it," she said.

Piccott also took part in the Janeway Telethon, the annual fundraising effort for the hospital.

"It was really nice to be able to spread my message about what happened and tell my story because, in that way, I was able to reach out and connect with other people," she said.

After the telethon, a woman got in touch with Piccott to say that, after hearing her story, she was quick to spot the signs and symptoms of meningitis in her own son.

"He was diagnosed so early that he wasn't in a coma,” Hamlyn said, “just medicated and in hospital for a few days, and went home again with no negative outcome.”

Piccott said it was such a relief to learn that her horrifying experience had helped someone else.

"I think more people need to be made aware... because if somebody can recognize the symptoms — it's all about how quickly you can act to get your child the help they need. And it really is a race against time," she said.

"The quicker that you're able to act on the symptoms and get your child to the hospital, the better their chances are of not only surviving — but surviving with [fewer] side effects."

Sticking by her side

Piccott said a lot has changed in her life in the past 12 years — yet, some things have stayed the same.

She still has her two little dogs. Prince and Prada have not left her side.

Her high school boyfriend, Jeff Piccott, also stuck by her throughout the entire ordeal — and in 2015, the pair got married.

"[My illness] was definitely a very traumatic experience for him as well," Piccott said, noting that Jeff was only 17 at the time.

"I really think the whole experience brought us that much closer together because we stayed together the entire time throughout it."

The couple now has a two-and-a-half year old son, Nixon — and Piccott recently gave birth to their second child, Lincoln.

"Nixon is the best thing that has ever happened to me. He is the sweetest little boy," she said.

"My husband works with heavy equipment, so Nixon is obsessed with dump trucks, tractors, excavators. He can name off every one of them and tell you what they are for."

Meanwhile, Piccott works as a French Immersion substitute teacher.

"I absolutely love teaching," she said, noting that during the last school year, she taught classes in kindergarten, and Grades 2 and 3.

Piccott said there was something positive that stayed with her through her experiences at the Janeway.

"I always knew, ever since I was little, that I wanted to work with children... and that I wanted to have a family of my own," she said.

"But I think, going through everything that I went through, it definitely solidified that decision, because being in the Janeway and meeting all these kids, I definitely wanted to continue to be able to connect with kids when I was older as well. And that's what I stuck with and I wouldn't change a thing."

Looking back

It has been years since Piccott and Hamlyn have looked through their collection of mementos.

Reflecting on that time is something that Piccott said doesn't happen very often — because it was such a traumatic experience that was difficult for her parents, her husband, her family, and her friends.

"It definitely brings up some emotions that I kind of forgot I had," she said.

"Gratefulness is definitely the main thing I'm feeling, but… It was so serious and I think, at the time, I didn't quite understand how serious it was. But looking back, now that I'm older and I know more about it, and I can see the emotions that are brought up in my parents when they talk about it, it's definitely a little bit scary.”

It’s obvious the effect that that period of time had on her mother. Hamlyn fought back tears at points throughout the interview with CBC. (“I’m a crier,” she added, with a smile.)

Hamlyn also said it’s hard to look back, because of what could have happened.

“I think it was just by fluke that I heard Lacey call out when I was taking down the Christmas tree decorations, and if I hadn't gone in, I would have checked on her five, 10, 20 minutes later, and I would've thought she was asleep. And in reality, she had meningitis,” Hamlyn said.

“I'm convinced if I never heard her call out that she wouldn't be here today,” she said, her eyes welling up.

She looks over at her daughter and smiles.

“Lucky us.”

This Is My Story

This Is My Story is a special series from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, where we check back with people who have overcome some tremendous struggles in their lives.

Read other stories from this series: