A man woke from a three-month coma to find out he was going to be a father.
When Joseph Cullen, 29, was put to sleep in a desperate bid to treat autoimmune encephalitis, where the immune system attacks the brain, his partner Billie Smith, also 29, decided to wait until he was better to tell him.
She sat by his bedside almost every day in Royal Derby hospital, watching her bump grow and grow, until he woke up in her fourth month of pregnancy.
Joseph Cullen, 29, pictured holding his daughter Poppy and partner Billie Smith, who is holding his six-year-old son Ryler from another relationship. Joe woke from a three-month coma to be told that he was going to be a father
Joe Cullen pictured in hospital. He was rushed to Royal Derby hospital after collapsing in the bathroom. His legs became paralysed and doctors performed tests to work out what he had
Joseph, who also has a six-year-old son called Ryley, said it was a ‘miracle’ that the pair had their daughter Poppy, who is now six months old.
‘Billie said to me ‘it’s a good job you’re awake because I’m pregnant’, he said describing the moments after he woke up.
‘I was stunned. I was already in disbelief at my condition and the position I found myself in.
‘It was the best news I could have wishes for.
‘It’s like she is a miracle baby because she could have been left without a dad.
‘Poppy is the one good thing to come out of this whole experience.
‘She gives me the strength to get better. All of the kids have.’
Billie added: ‘His reaction was just amazing when I told him he was going to be a dad again.
‘He could only move his lips but I could see he was dead excited.
‘I never thought I would get that moment. I genuinely thought he was going to die. He has proved everyone wrong.’
Joseph pictured after the coma with baby Poppy who was born in December last year. Doctors eventually identified his condition as autoimmune encephalitis, when the immune system attacks the brain
Joe pictured with his six-year-old son Ryler and daughter Poppy in hospital. He said that it was a ‘miracle’ when he found out about his daughter
Hospital staff then arranged for baby scan equipment to be set up next to his bedside, so that he could be there for the 20-week scan.
The computer programmer was moved to Sheffield hospital in August last year, which meant he could not be there for the birth.
Billie said it was a ‘lonely experience’ without him there.
‘I wanted him to hold my hand’, she said.
‘The first time he met Poppy was so nice. He cried his little eyes out. He was filled with joy.’
Joe collapsed in the bathroom after suffering from flu-like symptoms including, tiredness, migraines and a bad cold in March 2018.
He was rushed to A&E where his condition deteriorated rapidly over two days.
His legs were paralysed and his brain swelled while doctors carried out MRI scans and blood tests in a desperate bid to identify what was causing the illness.
After ruling out meningitis, and an infection of the brain and spinal cord, samples of his spinal fluid were sent to Sweden and America which led to his condition being identified as autoimmune encephalitis.
Joseph and Billie pictured before the illness. Joe initially developed a cold and flu like symptoms before the condition was diagnosed
Joseph pictured in hospital. Billie said she came to sit by his hospital bed most days while he was in the coma
When he was put to sleep doctors warned the family he may never wake up.
‘We always held on to hope but they said he wouldn’t wake up. They said there is not much hope’, said Billie.
WHAT IS AUTOIMMUNE ENCEPHALITIS?
Autoimmune encephalitis is a serious medical condition in which the immune system attacks the brain, impairing function.
It caused by a problem with the immune system (the body’s natural defence against infection).
The immune system mistakes healthy tissue in the brain as a threat and attacks it, causing the brain to become inflamed and swell.
The body produces antibodies which attack the NMDA receptors in the brain, which are proteins that cause electrical impulses.
Their functioning is necessary for judgement, perception of reality, human interaction, memory, and the control of unconscious activities such as breathing and swallowing.
It’s not always clear why the immune system malfunctions in this way.
Some cases of autoimmune encephalitis are caused by the immune system reacting to the presence of a tumour (an abnormal growth) inside the body.
The main symptoms are flu like, but people also develop memory loss, difficulty sleeping, and may become unable to communicate or speak coherently.
They might become confused, have hallucinations or exhibit strange behaviour.
Other symptoms include seizures, loss of consciousness and movement disorders.
Source: The Anti-NMDA Receptor Encephalitis Foundation
‘They tested for everything but they said it’s likely he could die.’
He only began to wake from his coma in mid-June last year and on the first day he regained full consciousness he woke up to find a pregnant Billie at his bedside..
She says the first few weeks of her pregnancy were lonely without Joe and she wishes he could have been there for her first even baby scans.
Joseph said he ‘burst into tears’.
‘I was pretty excited to tell him,’ said Billie.
‘I found out I was pregnant two days before he went into a coma. I thought it’d be best to keep it from him until he got better.
‘It was awful when he was put into a coma but it was for the best. I had mixed emotions because I had just found out we were going to have a baby.
‘It was incredibly upsetting, but I always held out hope he’d wake up.
‘We were told he might not wake up again. On at least one occasion we were told it was likely he’s going to die.
‘I was beyond heartbroken. I started to think what on earth will I tell my children.
‘I thought our baby may never be held or be kissed by her dad.
‘I was worried our children would be left without a dad. It was soul-crushingly awful.’
For the last ten months Joe has been taking part in daily therapy and rehab sessions.
He is still unable to move his legs but is now, after rehabilitation sessions, able to hold his arms above his head.
He held his daughter for the first time on December 23, a few days after she was born.
‘I could not stop crying’, said Joe.
‘I was able to hold her. She was in my arms and my little miracle.
‘It was the most amazing moment for me.’
Medics have done all they can to help Joe get better in hospital, and he is set to go home for the first time in 16 months, in August.
Joe pictured while receiving treatment for autoimmune encephalitis. After strength training he has been able to get control of his arms back and was then able to hold his daughter for the first time
Joe is hopeful of one day being able to walk again but doctors have been unable to say if he’ll regain the use of his legs.
Joe, who has a six-year-old son Ryley Cullen from a previous relationship, said: ‘The kids have given me the strength to get better. I want to be a proper dad for them.
‘I can’t wait to go home now. I just want to be home with my children.
‘It will be an amazing day.’
Billie, also mum to Charlie, three said: ‘Physio have taught him to live within his means. We are hopeful he’ll make a full recovery.
‘It’s taken since August to get to this point but he still can’t walk.
‘I can’t wait for us to be at home as a family. The children need their dad.
‘I don’t want the children to associate their dad with a phone screen or a hospital bed.
‘We video call each other three times a day but it’s not the same. We need him home.’
Less than 6,000 people suffer with the condition each year in the UK with acute cases resulting in paralysis.