I was an award-winning musician who worked with Maroon 5 – but meningitis robbed me of everything and left me scared of NOISE 

AT the age of 14, James Bell was a rising music star with a glittering career ahead of him.

He had just won the Rising Music Star award in the Nickelodeon Fruit Shoot Skills competition and his dreams of becoming a successful musician were starting to come true, having worked with the likes of Maroon 5 and Leona Lewis.

The mysterious symptoms baffled doctors

But just a few years later, James’ world was turned upside down when he was struck down by a mystery illness – later found to be mennigits, which left him terrified of sound and bed-bound.

Now James, 20, from Staffordshire, has spoken of his heartache at missing out on his big break – and the living hell he still has to endure…

I won Guitarist Magazine Young Guitarist of The Year at the age of 13, and Nickelodeon’s Rising Music Star Award one year later.

It wasn’t long before I started working with Isabella Summers – the pianist and songwriter for Florence and the Machine.

James hopes that next year, he’s well enough to complete his university course

I even went to LA to work with Sam Farrar – a member and writer for Maroon 5, and Anders Grahn – a Swedish multi-platinum producer who has worked with the Black Eyed Peas, on what was set to be my breakout single. It was ready to be a hit song and major US labels loved it.

I recorded the vocals with an American producer who has worked with the likes of Ariana Grande, 5sos and Jessie J.

On one occasion, Missy Elliot was recording in the next room. It was incredible.

James before he was struck down with the mystery illness in January 2017

Word got round that two top producers were looking for someone to sign a development deal with. They were going to produce and record five songs with the chosen artist.

After performing my tracks for them, I was extremely flattered by their positive feedback – especially because they were working with Sean Mendes and Camila Cabello.

A few weeks later, I found out they wanted me to be that artist.

It was such an exciting time. I was ready for my big break.

James opened for Leona Lewis at an acoustic show in New York
James opened for Leona Lewis at an acoustic show in New York

My plan for the beginning of 2017 was to fly to Nashville to work with the songwriting team that helped write Bon Jovi’s number one hit Living On a Prayer and also hits for One Direction.I was set to fly to LA to do a huge showcase of the best songs we’d written for all the major labels. This would’ve probably been where I got my record deal…

Only on January 17, I was rushed to hospital with a dangerously high temperature. There, paramedics said I was showing signs of sepsis – blood poisoning.

I was put on a drip for dehydration and started having muscle spasms, twitching and shaking.

The following day a shooting pain started from the top of my head, right down my spine – pointing to a neurological disorder.

The talented musician with Mike Posner, who has released hits including ‘Took a pill in Ibiza’ and ‘Cooler than me’

Soon,I lost the ability to walk. I could barely talk or eat, lost my sense of smell and couldn’t use the bathroom. My ears felt on fire with the slightest noise, my spine had a searing pain, and my eyes hurt at the tiniest bit of light.

My head ached, I couldn’t sit up and I lost 10kg in a week. 

While doctors were puzzled by my condition, they still managed to save my life.

After multiple tests for everything from lyme disease, leptospira, HIV, lupus and vasculitis, I was given medication for possible spinal tuberculosis.

The 20-year-old performing with Chad Smith from the Red Hot Chili Peppers – just 25 days before he got ill

I was put on a high dose of steroids, an anti-spasmodic drug, antibiotics, TB medication, anti-sickness drugs, vitamin B and was taking 30 tablets a day.

Doctors were so baffled by my symptoms, I became known as “mystery boy”.

After one month in hospital I was allowed home, but it took a further four months for me to walk properly again.

Since then I’ve been diagnosed with chronic urticaria and angioedema, meaning I itch like mad and have painful swelling. It’s like I’m having a constant allergic reaction. Due to my symptoms, it’s impossible to work.

Doctors have concluded that my illness was viral meningitis and an attack of a rare autoimmune disease called neuromyelitis optica, also known as Devic’s disease.

The skilled guitarist was making big waves on the music scene

It’s a rare condition that affects the spinal cord and the nerves of the eyes.

The neurologist was puzzled as to a cause and told me it should be a one off.

Due to this illness, I’ve had to give up countless opportunities. Some days, all I can do is lay still and wait for it to pass.

I try not to cry, be angry or tense because that releases hormones that make it worse. It’s torture.

Now, I’m 20 years oldI’ve developed hyperacusis and have become phobic of many sounds. I’m awaiting therapy for the anxiety this causes.

Every day, noises are massively louder and I have to adapt around me, meaning it’s difficult for me to live among people. I limit myself to a small amount of music activity then “rest” my ears – but it’s not always possible, which drives me crazy.

A rare condition that affects the spinal cord and the nerves of the eyes…

According to the NHS website, Neuromyelitis optica (NMO), also known as Devic’s disease, can cause a wide range of symptoms, such as weakness, blindness, nerve pain and muscle spasms.

These will vary from person to person – some may only have one attack of symptoms and recover well, whereas others may be more severely affected and have a number of attacks that lead to disability.

NMO can affect anyone at any age, but it’s more common in women than men.

Each person will experience different symptoms, which can range from mild to severe.

In many people with NMO, the spinal cord becomes swollen and irritated (inflamed). This is called transverse myelitis.

The optic nerve from the eye to the brain can also become inflamed – a condition called optic neuritis.

Some people may only experience transverse myelitis or optic neuritis but, if they have a specific antibody associated with NMO (AQP4) in their blood, they will be said to have NMO spectrum disorder (NMOSD).

NMO can be one-off or relapsing. Some people may only have one attack of optic neuritis or transverse myelitis, with good recovery and no further relapses for a long time.

But in very severe cases, more attacks can follow. A relapse can take from several hours up to days to develop. These attacks can be unpredictable and it’s not understood what triggers them.

I’m hoping that as I get better, I can work on songs and have guitar sessions at home, but my voice isn’t as good as it was before I was ill, which is hard to deal with.

As a last resort I’ve started a GoFundMe page. I’m hoping to raise enough money to complete the Music Production University course at BIMM London that I had to defer to next year. I’ll need extra funds on top of a maintenance loan to enable me to live alone and adapt to my accommodation and dampen sound. 

I was hoping to go busking and gigging to raise the money, but my illness is currently too bad. I can’t concentrate on anything for more than two minutes without giving in to irritation.

I’m hoping to be given new medication from the doctor and am praying my illness will be cured by the time the course starts.

I’m not giving up on my music career just yet…

Fabulous Online previously told of five mums’ agony over raising kids with extremely rare illnesses.

We also spoke to chronically ill vloggers who are turning to YouTube to share their lives – and deaths.


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