“The drugs were as bad as the disease”
Tuesday 18th March
As a high-flying law student, Anna Watterson never imagined she'd be diagnosed with tuberculosis. This “Victorian” disease, however, was to put her in isolation for four months.
In her mid-20s, Anna was living in a shared student house in north London and taking a law conversion course. When she started to feel unwell, she thought she was burning the candle at both ends.
“I got a really bad cough and started losing weight,” remembers Anna, now 33 and a qualified barrister. “I was running a fever, having night sweats – all the classic symptoms. I also started coughing up blood, but at the time I'd never had any ill health at all of any kind before and I assumed I was a bit under the weather and would probably shake it off. But it turned out to be more serious than I thought.”
Back in Hertfordshire for Christmas, and hoping for a relaxing break with her parents, Anna started to feel very unwell indeed. She made an appointment to see the family doctor who sent her for a chest x-ray and blood tests. “It had come on slowly, which again I think is quite typical of TB. My parents' GP referred me to the hospital – and I was admitted pretty much straight away over new year.”
After six weeks on antibiotics, Anna was discharged, but the relief was short-lived when, a week later, she was told she had a multi-drug resistant strain of TB. The entire course of treatment so far had been ineffective.
“I had to go back in again and this time they kept me in isolation – primarily because of the public health risk I presented,” she says, explaining how her visitors had to wear masks. “After a while it was just terrible to be cooped up. I felt as though I was better enough to be out and about, so it was really, really terrible to be stuck in that room.”
Slow road to recovery
Eventually, Anna's doctors were satisfied that the amount of bacteria she was coughing up – her sputum was tested – had dropped to sufficiently harmless levels. She was allowed home to “self-isolate” at her parents' home for a further six weeks. It was early summer and she'd missed so much course work that she needed to repeat the year.
The gruelling drug regime lasted 19 months in total. “As I started to recover, at one point the drugs were as bad as the disease, but gradually they taper off the number of drugs that you're on. For the first six months it was six antibiotics a day, which is quite a toxic combination. The nausea was the worst thing. I also became really sensitive to the sun and I'm a red head anyway so that was a real pain – I couldn't handle the sun at all.”
Looking back on the experience today, however, Anna is thankful to be better. Although she'll never know for certain how she came into contact with the disease, she thinks it was while travelling in India two years earlier.
“I know from my own experience why the Victorians called it consumption, because it genuinely consumes you,” she says. “It makes you weak and sick, and lose weight. But TB is a bacterial infection which means it's quite manageable in a way – it is treatable and you can be 100 per cent cured.”
Our thanks go to TB Alert, the UK’s national TB charity, for putting us in touch with Anna Watterson. TB Alert is raising awareness of tuberculosis to mark World TB Day in March. Visit the website to learn about the important work it is doing in the UK, India and Africa. Find out more about the symptoms of TB.