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Ordinary People: Donald Sutherland stars in 1980 movie

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The Oscar nominated star was born in Canada but trained as an actor in London. Here in Britain, Donald made his career starring in British films and TV shows, but off screen, the star has suffered with more illnesses than most. In an article by the Los Angeles Times he listed some of the illnesses he has suffered since childhood, and the list seems endless. “Polio, rheumatic fever, hepatitis, seroquel and abilify for bipolar depression an appendectomy, pneumonia and scarlet fever,” Donald recalled. Despite the severity of all of these past conditions, it was spinal meningitis that left the actor at death’s door.

And spinal meningitis,” the actor added. “I died…

“I died. For four or five seconds.”

The actor came down with the near-deadly infection while filming comedy war film Kelly’s Heroes in the 1970s, in which he played Sergeant Oddball.

In the midst of filming Donald’s health took a sudden turn, leaving him in a coma and fighting for his life.

Talking to the Irish Examiner the star revealed more about this horrific experience.

He said: “I got sick in the middle of shooting Kelly’s Heroes. I came to Yugoslavia for a day’s filming and I was out for six weeks.

“They took me to hospital – I had spinal meningitis. They didn’t have the antibiotics, so I went into a coma, and they tell me that for a few seconds, I died.

“I saw the blue tunnel, and I started going down it. I saw the white light. I dug my feet in.”

The actor continued to explain that although he didn’t want to die, when seeing the “white light”, he was tempted to give up the fight.

“I didn’t want to go – but it was incredibly tempting. You just go, ‘Aw, s**t man, why not?'” Donald added.

The NHS explains that meningitis is an infection of the protective membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord.

If not treated the condition can quickly become severe, causing life-threatening blood poisoning and permanent damage to the brain or nerve cells.

The condition develops when a virus, bacteria or other pathogen invades the protective layers of the brain and spinal cord, known as meninges. This activates the immune system and causes inflammation.

When the brain and spinal tissue becomes infected with a pathogen the tissue swells, hampering the blood flow to and from the brain.

Symptoms can suddenly develop, and mainly include the following:

  • A high temperature (fever)
  • Being sick
  • A headache
  • A rash that does not fade when a glass is rolled over it (but a rash will not always develop)
  • A stiff neck
  • A dislike of bright lights
  • Drowsiness or unresponsiveness
  • Seizures (fits).

Depending on the type of meningitis – either virtual or bacterial – complications and side effects of the condition may differ. Some experience permanent brain and organ damage, stroke, loss of hearing or in the worst case death.

Bacterial meningitis is rarer than viral meningitis but is usually caught from people who carry these viruses or bacteria in their nose or throat, but are able to fight off the condition themselves. Infections that can cause meningitis can be spread through sneezing, coughing or kissing.

Treatment also depends on the type of meningitis the individual has. The Mayo Clinic explains that acute bacterial meningitis must be treated immediately with intravenous antibiotics whereas viral meningitis can only be treated through bed rest, fluids and over-the-counter pain medication.

The condition is most common in babies, young children, teenagers and young adults, with babies suffering from slightly different symptoms than the ones listed above. Symptoms to look out for in babies includes:

  • Refuse feeds
  • Irritable
  • A high-pitched cry
  • A stiff body or be floppy or unresponsive
  • A bulging soft spot on the top of their head.

In order to minimise the risk of catching meningitis, babies aged eight weeks are offered a meningitis vaccine, with a second dose being given at 16 weeks and a booster at one year, this is known as the meningitis B vaccine.

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