Brush with Death

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Mark Callanan survives potentially fatal disease

Mark Callanan is all ready one of the best book reviewers in the province and, at age 28, has tremendous potential.

Recently, we came close to losing him.

Callanan is the author of Scarecrow, a book of poetry, and a literary critic with The Independent, Books in Canada and Canadian Notes & Queries. Callanan is also the president of the Writers' Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador (WANL).

In October, Callanan (right, photo by Andrew McCall) was stricken with meningococcal meningitis, a bacterial infection that very nearly killed him.

It hit without warning, Callanan said in an interview, and he didn't realize the seriousness of his condition at the time. He forgets most of what happened, and has reconstructed the sequence of events based on what others have told him.

The first symptom was a "strange headache" in the back of his head.

"Then I started getting feverish so my girlfriend, Andreae, stuck me in the bathtub to warm me up because I was shivering uncontrollably," he said. "Then she put me to bed. I was complaining of a headache and exhibiting other flu-like symptoms. I was throwing up in the bathroom for a while."

The next morning, Callanan was a ghastly sight as he clutched the banister and tried to make his way downstairs. "I was getting delirious by that point," he said. "Andrea quietly led me back upstairs to the bedroom and shut the door."

Then she called an ambulance. "By that time I was kind of writhing about and they were trying to hold me down, I guess to do some kind of on-site toxicology text. They pricked my finger then carted me off in an ambulance."

He was diagnosed with meningococcal meningitis, an infection of the fluid that surrounds the spinal cord and brain. The disease can be contagious and is more common among teenagers.

Antibiotic treatment began immediately, and a coma was medically induced to sedate Callanan. "I was thrashing about and in danger of doing myself more damage."

He was in a coma for almost a week, during which he very nearly died. "It was pretty sketchy for the first few days. There was a good chance that I was going to die, essentially. Even after that danger had passed, there was a decent chance of permanent brain damage They gave me a reflex test prodded my foot with a needle and I had no pain reflex, so they were worried there might be some damage."

However, Callanan came out of the coma with no permanent harm. "Then I had the events of the last week explained to me, at length. I was coming down off pain killers, so I was a little bit hazy."

Callanan said he still hasn't come completely to grips with what happened. "For everyone else, it was a horrendous experience and they almost lost me. For me, it's just a complete blank. I never experienced any of it It's such a strange thing to go through."

For Callanan, it was not one of those life-changing experiences commonly associated with people who nearly die. "I know that's not what most people want to hear Maybe it's because it's not quite real for me, because I didn't go through that experience of having it presented to me that I might die. But I like to think it also had to do with my own outlook. For the last few years, I've been doing what I want to be doing and am completely happy with my life as it is. There's nothing I want to do differently I wasn't shocked awake,' you know what I mean?"

Emerging from the coma was just the beginning of a recovery process that would take months to unfold, Callanan said. There was a lot of bed rest, and "lingering effects" of the meningitis.

"I had a near constant headache," he said. "I also had to do physiotherapy to build the strength back in my legs. Apart from that, the vertigo (loss of balance) was the big thing. It wasn't bad while I was in the house, where I could only see maybe ten feet ahead of me at a time. But the second I'd step outside, the range would be greater and that would throw me off completely. The further into the distance I was looking, the dizzier I would get."

Fortunately, the pummeling his brain endured has not affected Callanan's motor skills, or even his writing ability. "I seem to have dodged pretty much every bullet that could have hit me."

While surviving with no permanent physical damage, the months of downtime could have inflicted economic devastation upon Callanan, a full-time freelancer with no alternative source of income or benefits. He feels indebted to the little-known Cultural Assistance Plan for Emergencies (CAPE), administered by the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council.

The fund is for cases of severe illness, accident or some other catastrophic incident that renders it impossible for artists to work, or which afflicts a family member of a cultural worker.

This has apparently been a difficult year for some who work in the arts, and the fund has now been depleted. To help replenish it, WANL is hosting a fundraising dinner, March 17 at 7:00 pm at the Ship Pub. For $35 per seat, guests will enjoy a three-course Thai dinner, accompanied by readings from acclaimed authors Michael Crummey and Carmelita McGrath.

Tickets are available at The Ship Pub. For more information, contact Mark Callanan by email at or by telephone at 739-5215.

It's a great opportunity to enjoy a wonderful evening out, whilst contributing to a fund that can mean so much at an extremely difficult time.

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