Published: 00:01, 26 January 2015
Ross Buggins will never forget the illness that tore his life apart.
He had been plunged into the nightmare of being labelled as mentally ill, when he was really suffering from a rare type of swelling of his brain.
Complaining of insomnia, a rash, memory loss, panic attacks and suicidal thoughts, he was taken to Kent and Canterbury Hospital, where medics crucially missed the real cause.
What followed was five months of hell for the former Barton Court Grammar School pupil and his family, during which he was sectioned, fell into a coma and even attempted suicide.
He is only alive today because the belt he had put around his neck snapped, saving his life.
Now he and his parents, Brian and Michelle Buggins, of Queen’s Avenue, Canterbury, are appealing for more awareness of anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, the symptoms of which can easily be mistaken for mental illness.
“My head felt as if it was burning and my muscles locked up. I couldn’t breathe properly but was screaming” - Ross
For IT consultant Ross, 30, it began in June when he went to his GP complaining of a variety of problems.
Blood tests came back clear and he was prescribed antidepressants and given a leaflet on anxiety management.
Soon after, while visiting his parents in Canterbury, he suffered an extreme panic attack.
He said: “My head felt as if it was burning and my muscles locked up. I couldn’t breathe properly but was screaming.”
Rushed to the K&C by ambulance, he had blood tests, a chest X-ray and CT scan before doctors declared the problem was “truly psychological” and discharged him.
“I thought I was having a mental breakdown, which felt awful as it was so unlike me,” said Ross.
His parents were equally alarmed because their son had never had mental health issues in the past and had been fit and healthy.
After another panic attack, he was taken back to hospital. This time mental health services were called and he was given stronger antidepressants. But they had no effect and weeks later Ross tried to hang himself.
He said: “I felt life was not worth living. I’m so lucky the belt snapped.”
In August, he headed to Crete on holiday with his girlfriend Emma to try to help his illness, but the trip ended on the A11 when he tried to climb out of the car on the way to the airport.
“Having Ross sectioned was really tough but we had to do what we thought was best for his safety at the time, based on what the doctors were telling us" - Dad Brian
“I was so paranoid, I thought we were going to die in a plane crash,” he said. The police escorted him to his home in Norwich and his family decided to call the crisis team, which led to him being sectioned on August 30.
His father, Brian, said: “Having Ross sectioned was really tough but we had to do what we thought was best for his safety at the time, based on what the doctors were telling us.
“Because they couldn’t find a bed for him in Norwich, we found ourselves in the nightmare situation of having to travel with him to Nottingham and then Manchester in the early hours as they tried to find one.
“At one point he escaped from the private ambulance and had to be captured by police.”
Ross eventually came back to a mental health unit in Norwich and was being treated for insomnia by a sleep expert who was the first to recognise something else was wrong and urged his doctors to revisit his case.
A week later his sodium levels plummeted and he went into a coma-like state.
Finally, he was seen by a neurologist for the first time and three-and-a-half weeks later, in November, after a series of tests, he was finally diagnosed with anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, for which he could be treated with the right medication.
He said: “Doctors said inflammation in my brain had affected parts of it controlling memory and emotions, causing my symptoms. After treatment, it was incredible how normal I felt and I was discharged five days later.
‘It’s scary that there are probably other people in the mental health system who are not really psychotic and have a physical cause for their symptoms that they aren’t being treated for.
“I’m amazed my girlfriend Emma stood by me through all this – she’s my rock.’
Brian said: “It was a relief in one sense to know that Ross wasn’t mentally ill but he still had a very serious condition to recover from. The whole episode took quite a toll on the family, including his brother Craig and sister Holly. It was an immensely stressful time and it was fortunate that I am retired and could dedicate so much time to Ross.
“But it also highlights the need to link neurology departments with psychology so that this kind of diagnosis is not missed.”
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More by this authorGerry Warren