Just two years ago TV presenter Charlie Webster was told she had just 24 hours to live after contracting malaria on a charity bike ride in Brazil. Still on the road to recovery, she’s determined to make a difference, as Catherine Scott discovers.
he distressing pictures of Charlie Webster in a coma hooked up to a life support machine in a Rio hospital battling for life are tough viewing. Just days earlier the television presenter was celebrating having cycled 3,000 miles across Brazil for the Jane Tomlinson appeal.
“We were euphoric. We went up to the statue of Christ the Redeemer and looked over Rio where I was due to be involved in presenting the Olympics in a few days,” recalls Sheffield-born Charlie. “We all felt utterly exhausted and none of us ever wanted to see a bike again, but I also remember feeling how lucky I was to be there and said a prayer. I was so grateful for my life, a few days later I was told I was about to lose it.”
Charlie, 35, had contracted a very rare form of malaria while riding in remote parts of Brazil which doctors in Rio struggled to diagnose, delaying vital treatment. “At first they thought I was just dehydrated but then I developed haemolytic syndrome – which meant both my kidneys failed and a severe form of e coli, they even thought I might have the zika virus. All they were doing was trying to keep me alive as my organs started to fail, rather than treat what turned out to be malaria.”
Charlie was put into an induced coma as doctors tried to work out what was wrong with her and then, when they eventually tested for malaria, treat it. She later learnt that she’d had to be resuscitated and had been put on a life-support machine.
Her mum had flown out from Leeds to be with her daughter and although Charlie was in a coma she was aware of what was going on around her.
“I could hear them talking. I could hear them say I only had 24 hours to live. It was a living nightmare as I had no way of letting them know that I could hear them. But I was determined not to leave my mum as I knew it would break her heart if I died. They also told her that if I did survive I could be brain-damaged as the malaria had caused a haemorrhage in my brain and they didn’t know what damage would have been caused.”
Despite the dire prognosis doctors decided to treat Charlie with anti-malaria drugs, unsure whether she would respond. But she did.
After a month in hospital in Rio she was eventually flown back to the UK and to St James’s Hospital in Leeds where she spent another month. She has sustained permanent damage to her kidneys and may need a transplant in the future. She has to be careful what she eats and can’t touch alcohol again. But it wasn’t just the physical scars that Charlie has been left with.
“I have struggled a lot psychologically. Being told you are going to die really messes with your head, I have flashbacks and problems sleeping and have been diagnosed with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). I know I am lucky to be alive but it has changed me and changed my life.”
Doctors says if Charlie hadn’t be so fit it is unlikely she would have survived, but she believes it is also the strength of her will which pulled her through. “I did not want to die and I was determined not to, but it was hard, it was absolutely exhausting.”
After she left St James’s she went to live with her mum in Leeds as she learnt to do many of the things she had taken for granted again. When she was eventually able to return to her flat in London it was an emotional experience.
“I had left it five months earlier, going on a massive adventure to Brazil and I came back a completely different person. I knew I had been given the gift of life but the reality of what had happened to me crashed down on me.”
She admits that she probably went back to work too soon, which took further toll on her both physically and psychologically.
“I was so determined to try to get back to normal as soon as possible and working is my normal. Psychologically it was the right thing to do as I needed to get my confidence back but physically it was too soon. I have had to learn to take things slowly, which has never been my style,” says Charlie who is no stranger to trauma. She has spoken openly in the past about being a victim of sexual abuse and also having experience of domestic violence. But she says coming back from malaria has been one of her biggest fights.
“I have had to learn to try not to be frustrated at myself and to know my boundaries and look after myself physically and mentally. I really believe in the strength of the mind as part of my survival and subsequent recovery.”
In April this year Charlie reached a major milestone when she completed the London Marathon. “It was a huge achievement for me and I was very proud of myself, although it took me such a long time and I found it incredibly hard – it wasn’t helped when I took a tumble not long after I’d started,” she says. “I couldn’t run it like I would have done before I contracted malaria but for me it was a massive achievement just to complete it. Because of the damage to my kidneys I have to take on a lot of fluids and keep refuelling.
“It was a bit frustrating though as people saw I had run the marathon and thought I was better – but I am not 100 per cent in fact I am still very much in the recovery period.”
Earlier this year Charlie took the brave decision to visit Uganda – where malaria is rife – with the charity Malaria No More of which she is now become an ambassador. “I was nervous about going as it would be very dangerous for me to be exposed to malaria again – I don’t think my body would have been able to cope – so I was in this boiling hot country wearing a jumper and completely covered up.
“I saw a woman while I was there who was dying from malaria, which was very hard to witness. She had a little baby and was about my age. I remember someone saying ‘get out of the room’ but I wasn’t going anywhere. I knew how scared I was when I was in that position and I wasn’t going to leave her.”
Charlie is the process of setting up a foundation to help education about the risks from malaria. She is also writing a book, a form of memoir but also looking at the themes of hope and survival and the bond between a mother and her daughter. “When I was in the coma I could hear my mum’s voice. If I hadn’t heard her voice which made me determined not to die I don’t think I would have survived.”
She is in talks in America about more television work, although she is moving away from sports presenting. At the moment her passion is to try to do something about the malaria situation.
“I do believe that it is my responsibility to do something, to try to make a difference,” she says. “I fought very hard to be alive and I am determined to make it count.”