Ipswich teenager hospitalised for six weeks with brain infection

Owen Willis, 19, is still struggling with his speech after being hospitalised for six weeks between December and January

Owen Willis, 19, is still struggling with his speech after being hospitalised for six weeks between December and January. - Credit: Charlotte Bond

A young man from Ipswich is on the road to recovery after spending six weeks in hospital with a brain infection. 

Owen Willis was a fit and healthy 18-year-old when his right eye became puffy and swollen. 

Tests revealed he had a serious abscess behind his eye, and fluid was putting pressure on his brain, requiring Owen to be rushed into theatre for an emergency craniotomy. 

Three months on, he takes medication every day to prevent seizures. Being intubated so many times has also affected Owen’s voice. 

“I’m getting better,” he said. “It’s mainly speech now. I struggle with words.” 

With Owen’s blessing, his mother, Hayley Gardiner, has helped him recount his frightening ordeal. 

While Owen was in hospital, Hayley had to rely on phone calls from staff to keep her updated.

Owen Willis, 19 with his mum Hayley. While Owen was in hospital, Hayley had to rely on phone calls from staff to keep her updated. - Credit: Charlotte Bond

“He tested positive for Covid on December 5,” said Hayley, 44. Owen had no symptoms, but had decided to test since Hayley had had the virus. 

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Over the next few days, he felt worse, resting in bed and not eating much, his right eye starting to swell. After a trip to Ipswich Hospital, Owen was placed on a drip for a few hours, before being discharged with antibiotic cream for his eye. 

On Monday night, Hayley suggested Owen call his father, but to her alarm, her son was unable to use his mobile phone. 

“He was getting confused, and then became unresponsive to me,” said Hayley. “He didn’t know what he was doing. I thought, this isn’t right, I need to ring an ambulance.” 

Owen was admitted again to Ipswich Hospital on December 13, but was transferred to Addenbrookes early the next morning. Doctors suspected that he may have meningitis or even a bleed on the brain

Owen's right eye became swollen

Owen's right eye became swollen, and fluid from the abscess behind his eye began to put pressure on his brain. - Credit: Charlotte Bond

Owen had to have an emergency craniotomy to drain his abscess.

Owen had to have an emergency craniotomy to drain his abscess. - Credit: Hayley Gardiner

An MRI scan revealed the abscess and the build-up of fluid pressing on his brain.  

The emergency surgery to drain away the fluid was successful, as were procedures to drain his sinuses and abscess the following day. 

However, Owen’s battle was by no means over. 

After surgery, he could open his eyes, but could not move the left side of his body, and was kept sedated. Finally, after nine days apart, Hayley was able to visit him in intensive care. 

His breathing tube was removed briefly, but had to be reinserted after his left lung collapsed. 

“When you look back over it all, you think, oh, my god,” said Hayley. “Before all this, he was fine. He played football and everything.” 

Owen slowly grew stronger, although he was not able to speak, and communicated through pointing. 

“Owen had pointed to a picture which showed he was scared,” remembered Hayley. “I told him he would be OK.” 

Owen had been improving, and managed to get out of bed and walk up and down hospital corridors, before he had a seizure. He was returned to intensive care, reintubated and sedated for the next few days. 

Owen is now much improved, although still struggling with his speech, and hopes to return to work soon.

Owen is now much improved, although still struggling with his speech, and hopes to return to work soon. - Credit: Charlotte Bond

Finally, on January 14, Owen was able to speak again. 

“He said the word ‘yes,’” said Hayley. “It was very raspy, but this was the first time he had been able to speak.” 

Slowly, Owen was able to build up his strength, before being discharged on January 26, the day before he turned 19. 

 Now, he is improving at home, and is hoping to gradually return to his part-time job at Sainsbury’s. 

He still has to take anti-seizure medication twice a day, but is relieved that he seems to be through the worst. 

“His speech is still not 100%. But other than that, he’s OK with everything else,” said Hayley. “They weren’t sure how he was going to be. They couldn’t tell me what sort of outcome to expect.” 

Owen and Hayley still wonder whether the abscess and subsequent health struggles can be attributed to his positive Covid test. However, hospital consultants have been unable to confirm this. 

The World Health Organisation has listed “red or irritated eyes” as one of the less common symptoms of Covid.

There have been reports of people contracting eye infections after testing positive for Covid, such as a nine-year-old boy from South Gloucestershire and a 13-year-old girl from Bristol.