What I Lost -- and Gained -- Thanks to Transverse Myelitis

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My symptoms kicked off strangely, but fittingly around April Fool’s Day 2014 after a shower. I’d dried off, but my legs still felt wet in patches. Scrubbing at them with a towel didn’t help. When sensations waxed and waned over the next several weeks, I presumed a cervical injury had blown another disc.

Minor inexplicable bodily issues usually dissipate, I told myself. Until my fingers and toes started tingling. Vertigo hit, lasting seven months. My right leg spasmed, gripping me from the hip down merely from stirring in bed. It didn’t hurt so much as it was a rigor to withstand.

I lost my balance, my gait reduced to stumbling atop the planks of a listing ship. Co-workers supported me as I reeled along. A fitting analogy describing optical issues became eyeball murder party, reservations for one. Indescribable fatigue descended. I wished I could lie down — when I was lying down! I shook, and forgot information. My mouth burned, my throat iced and stole my breath.

I endured ride after ride in the MRI machine, countless blood tests, medication side effects, a terrifying lumbar puncture, bizarre-seeming procedures and physical therapy. Four months later, upon hearing the name of the culprit, I was foolish enough to feel lucky.

As of this writing, I have reinvented myself and my career. My relationship has proven to be unbelievably resilient. I am beyond proud of my superhero kids.

Hilary in her transverse myelitis t-shirt.
Hilary in her transverse myelitis t-shirt.

Before I could get to this state, I had to lose almost everything.

Categorized by the National Organization for Rare Disorders, transverse myelitis (TM) affects all ages, races and both sexes, and is defined as “… a rare inflammatory disease causing injury to the spinal cord with varying degrees of weakness, sensory alterations, and autonomic dysfunction…” Approximately 75 percent of cases are idiopathic. Symptoms mirror multiple sclerosis (MS).

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke reports “…about one-third of people affected with transverse myelitis experience good or full recovery from their symptoms; they regain the ability to walk normally and experience minimal urinary or bowel effects and paresthesias. Another one-third experience only fair recovery and are left with significant deficits such as spastic gait, sensory dysfunction, and prominent urinary urgency or incontinence. The remaining one-third experience no recovery at all…”

There is no cure.

My body attacked the myelin sheathing on my spine. Electrical signals traveling through that area are interrupted, eliciting symptoms striking at the height of the lesion and below. Once, my foot deadened within seconds, as if it had been asleep for 20 minutes! Three neurologists can’t tell me why my tongue burns as if zapped on a 9-volt battery, and I spark like a blown fuse. So every six months I hop in the scanning tube for funsies.

I have become uncomfortably numb.

I consider myself fortunate, having contracted subacute transverse myelitis. Acute TM can cause paralysis and even death.

An attempt to dig up research dollars yielded zero results because only about 1,400 Americans are diagnosed each year.

We lean heavily on support group members.

The Transverse Myelitis Folks (Blue Crew), a Facebook group (and extension of my family) run by Kevin Weilacher, provides encouragement, credible resources and life-changing positivity. Weilacher advises, “never take life for granted, because your life can ­change in an instant.”

Member Justin Hephner’s ability to walk again is attributed to his 40 years of martial arts study, arguing that the healthier a person is prior to onset, the greater their potential for complete recovery.

Liz Gardner, who has since has lost the use of her hands, had never heard of transverse myelitis, even though she’d worked in health care.

Neither had my mom, who has been in the field for nearly 40 years.

We love our community’s TM children fiercely, those whose mobility has been affected. Infants who can’t walk, toddlers breathing through a vent. When our kids make strides, tears wet our cheeks.

People call me courageous. I’m just refusing to be defined.

All I can do is meet each day head on, no matter what it brings — a relapse, a fresh lesion stealing another function.

Or my life.

Because of my new situation, I alternately run on 100-proof anger and determination, grasping hope so I don’t drown in sadness. I hate the new physical me, while also recognizing what I’ve learned from the experience. I am kinder, less-panicky and more accepting. TM made me vulnerable. I had no choice but to reach out. It was accept me or don’t.

My children were furious and scared, and we all yearned for a diagnosis while dreading to know the truth. Out of frustration, everyone cried and screamed obscenities during family meetings.  But we have surpassed those times. Now as my fiancé and I prepare to marry, our little clan knits closer together using the miles of road we have traversed.

I am at last good enough. Exactly as I am. Oddly thanks to transverse myelitis.

Follow this journey on Hilary’s website.

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How I Went From ‘Pins and Needles’ to Transverse Myelitis in One Day

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New Year’s Eve was peaceful for us. We did the same as usual, enjoyed some snacks, a bottle of wine, and watched “Hoot’nanny” on TV. We were a little subdued as my father-in-law had passed away suddenly the day before. It was a big shock, particularly as I was with him at the time.

I went to bed feeling fine. I didn’t even feel tipsy, just tired.

I woke up New Year’s Day with pins and needles all up my right side. I thought they would go away and got on with my day, busying myself as much as possible to take my mind off them. They didn’t ease, so I turned to Facebook and asked my friend for tips on how to get rid of pins and needles, but nothing suggested worked at all.

Around 11 a.m. I decided to call 111. I just wanted advice because these didn’t feel like normal pins and needles; they were overwhelming and even numbing. After taking my history, they decided to send out an ambulance, which I did not think was necessary since it was only pins and needles. The ambulance came, checked me over and wanted to take me to the emergency room. “But I’ve only got pins and needles!” I cried, “I don’t want to go to the hospital.” So, they left me.

An hour later the pins and needles started on my left foot and I felt them rising through my left leg and starting in my left hand. It didn’t feel right. Sheepishly, I called my brother and asked him to take me to emergency care.

I walked in just before 3 p.m. It took ages to be seen. I went to the bathroom and felt a bit shaky. At 5 p.m. the nurse finally called me to a cubicle, but I couldn’t stand up or walk. While on the cubicle bed I quickly lost all sensation in my arms and legs apart from the pins and needles. I had no strength at all and was paralyzed.

I was taken for an MRI, but unable to finish the scan since I had a panic attack. The next morning, I was given sedation and taken in for another MRI of my head and spine. The doctors informed me they found inflammation of my spine and called it transverse myelitis.

It is a pretty rare diagnosis in the U.K. unless you have multiple sclerosis, which I don’t. I’ve had blood tests and a lumbar puncture to look at the spinal fluid, but so far I have no answers as to why this happened to me.

I spent 12 days in hospital, five of them on intravenous steroids.

The day after my paralysis I regained my right arm, then slowly afterwards my left. A few days later I started to gain strength in my right leg, and 10 days later, a little strength in my left leg. However, the pain is continuous and the pins and needles have not stopped, not for a second. Everything feels strange and I’m hyper-sensitive to touch. The symptoms affect me from the waist down, and in both arms. Never in my life had I felt so awful, but I continued to remain positive.

anne's zimmer frame used for walking and balance. two red bows are tied to it.
Anne’s zimmer frame used for walking and balance.

It’s been three months since my diagnosis and the most useful thing I’ve learned is patience. I’ve learned that everything takes much longer to do now than it did before: showering, getting dressed, preparing a meal, even answering the front door. Most of all I’ve learned patience in waiting for my recovery. I had hoped that I would get better quickly; when I was in the hospital, two to eight weeks seemed like a lifetime. Now I’ve realized the road to recovery is long and slow.

I am so thankful to have found the Transverse Myelitis Society; it has been the biggest support since receiving my diagnosis. I’d advise anyone who finds themselves with this diagnosis to contact them. It’s helpful to find others who understand what you are going through and can answer questions, others willing to share your journey with you and advise you along the way. Many people do not get diagnosed with transverse myelitis right away because it’s such a rare condition. Most general practitioners have never heard of it. You may get misdiagnosed initially; common misdiagnoses include multiple sclerosis or Guillain-Barre syndrome. However, there are tests for these which can rule them out. Sometimes the onset happens quickly, like in my case, or it can be a long and slow attack. It can be caused by a number of illnesses or infections, or it can be caused by nothing at all.

Currently I can no longer walk unaided; I need a wheelchair when I go out. I’ve lost the ability to drive, and everything I do takes much longer than it did before. But, with patience, I’m taking each day as it comes. I feel happier now that I’m home and with my children, even if I can’t physically do as much as I’d like to for them. At least I can speak to them, read to them, and cuddle them. Transverse myelitis is now a part of my life and always will be, even if I do improve.

Follow this journey on Raisie Bay.

The Mighty is asking the following: Were you diagnosed with your disease, disability and/or mental illness as an adult? Tell us about the moment you finally got your diagnosis. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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The Lifelong Lesson I Learned From a Hurtful Comment

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Nearly three years ago, a girl I’ve known all my life said to me, “You know… You’ll never drive. You can’t do anything, really. That must suck to think about, huh?”

At the time, I was brand new to being in a wheelchair. I have transverse myelitis and had recently become paralyzed. I knew she was wrong, but I didn’t say anything. I just looked at her until she realized what she said had hurt me.

She has no idea what a big fire she lit in my heart.

She has no idea what I’ve done since that day. I’ve exceeded everyone’s expectations, including my own.

I have lived a much more fulfilling life since becoming paralyzed than I ever did before. Over the last three years I’ve done multiple 5Ks, swam in 15 feet water, laid out on the beach, gone on hiking trips and gone down slides and swung on swings at the park. I’m even learning to drive soon. I’ve been on TV and on the radio, I’ve swum with dolphins and I have danced more passionately than ever. I have laughed hard and loved deeply.

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Through all this, my mind always goes back to the girl who told me, “You can’t do anything.” Something she has now completely forgotten she said is drilled in my mind and motivates me every single day to get up and get pushing.

Two weeks ago, I went zip lining in Hawaii as part of my Make-A-Wish trip. At first, I thought I couldn’t do it because it would be too hard. It was difficult, but that didn’t matter the second I let go. I was free. Freedom — something I haven’t felt in years. Freedom is a feeling I can’t quite explain. It created a huge lump in my throat and caused happy tears. I did something I thought was completely out of question for me.

I am the first person in a wheelchair to ever zip line in Oahu, Hawaii.

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I can choose to let transverse myelitis define me, confine me, outshine me or refine me. I can also choose to move on from my struggles and leave them behind me. I won’t forget my past, but I can grow from it.

Next, I plan to try bungee jumping, sky diving or even rock climbing. I plan on living my life as best I can in spite of my setbacks. I promise you — at the end of my life, not one person will say I missed out on anything. Ever.

Without my Make-A-Wish trip, I never would have had the opportunity to visit Hawaii, one of the most beautiful places on earth. I could never have gone zip lining or swum with dolphins. How do you thank someone for that? For helping me more than anyone else could have?

I have grown so much as a person in just a few short months because of my Make-A-Wish journey. Before that, I was in a rut — I was in pain every day and I didn’t have much motivation. I did what I had to do and laughed often, but I wasn’t anything like I am now. Now, I’m still in pain every day, but I learned I can push through it. I can do it. I have so much motivation now. I have almost all A’s in school. I realized how much I want to help other people. I want others to feel the joy I do when I experience things I never thought I could do before.

My trip to Hawaii may be over, but in a way, it’s just starting. My journey is only beginning. I never really thought about the future because I was scared and I didn’t what to expect day to day. Now, I can’t wait for my life to begin. I’m excited to have more laughs and more adventures. I’m excited to drive, to go to college and to have a beautiful house one day. I will live, and I will be so overwhelmingly happy.

I still don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, but I can still live for today. Because every day I am alive and well is a great day.

This post originally appeared on Alex and Her Journey.

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How I Teach My Daughter About Self-Care

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A while ago, I began emailing with a mother who had adopted a daughter with a different kind of ichthyosis many years ago. Her daughter is now grown, and she and I shared emails for a while about all kinds of different topics.

One of the things she said has really stuck with me as I care for Brenna’s skin each day: she told me to involve Brenna in her own skin care and health care as early as possible.

She said that her own daughter began “helping” with her Aquaphor applications at the age of 2 or 3, and just a few years later, could rattle off to the dermatologist all updates about her skin and describe any symptoms she was experiencing. This, she told me, really encouraged her independence and her self-awareness about how her skin felt, what care she needed for it to feel the best, etc.

I loved the concept, and more and more these days, I am discovering how right she was in this thinking.

Starting a few months ago, Brenna has been putting the lid on her Aquaphor jar as we near the end of her application. And in recent weeks, I’ve been asking her about her care before I do it: “Do you need lotion?” “Do you want eyedrops?”

I’ve been astounded and excited that she seems to be realizing more and more when her skin feels dry and when her eyes feel dry. I usually ask her several times a day if she wants eyedrops, and usually once or twice a day, she answers yes… even just a few months ago, the answer was always no.

Most recently, we’ve had to use a topical medicine on some areas of her skin. As soon as I carry her to her changing table, she’ll grab the tube of ointment, try to say “medicine” and gesture to the areas where it needs to be applied.

Brenna is also very aware of any pain, and if she is whining for what seems like no apparent reason, I will ask if something hurts. She answers “Yeah,” I ask “Where?” and then she’ll point to her hands or feet or to her g-tube site if they are causing her pain.

In the same way that we teach independence to children by training them to use a real cup instead of a sippy cup, or teaching them how to brush their teeth by themselves, I want Brenna to learn early on how to care for her skin. Because I think this will open up a lot more opportunities for her as she grows up – to participate in more activities, to attend more events and even to travel more.

I know we will feel more comfortable as her parents letting her go to a friend’s house or a birthday party if we know that she will be able to tell an adult if she doesn’t feel well or if she needs something… and I know other parents and family members will feel more comfortable with being responsible for her if she has an active role in her care.

Of course I know that general education will be necessary in a new situation or with a new person, but teaching her early to care for herself and to be aware of what her body needs will only foster independence and minimize reliance on other people to care for her.

If she comes home really dry from a friend’s house, I want the burden to be on her to ask for lotion, not on her friends’ parents to have to pester her to apply lotion. If she starts to feel unwell while playing outside on a warm day, I want her to be able to recognize this feeling and know how to cool herself off.

Our dermatologist “warned” us that Brenna will probably go through stages as she gets older – sometimes she will take a very active role in her skin care and look forward to baths and lotion… but there will also be stages where she fights it. (Like when I know I’ll feel better if I don’t eat a half bag of Doritos… but I fight that and down those chips anyway.)

Seeing the early stages of Brenna’s interest in caring for herself is exciting… and when I step back and write about it, I realize my baby has really moved into the true toddler stage. Learning to eat has been a huge step toward independence for her, as she loves to self-feed, and I think she is discovering how proud she feels by doing things all by herself.

This post originally appeared on Blessed By Brenna.

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Every Special Needs Mom Deserves to Hear This

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I just came from an elementary band concert and I saw a fellow autism parent there who was with her son for his first band concert. As I watched her, this friend of mine, I was thinking, I bet there is no one else here, except for her husband, who knows how hard she is working right now. To an unsuspecting observer, she was just a mom with her son. To me, she looked like she was paying attention to his every word and body movement… to his very aura, if you will. This is what I call the “Behind the Scenes” of autism.

It deflates me when I’m somewhere with Evan and people say, “He looks like he is doing so well.” Yes, thank you, he is doing so well, but what you don’t see is how hard I have to work to keep it that way. I monitor his environment and his body language constantly to avoid any potential trouble, and this task is exhausting. I have to do it at home, too, though it is much easier in our own space, as most of our variables are known.

When I saw this mom, I knew how hard it was for her. She stopped by to say hi, and I told her she was doing a great job. I hope she heard me… I hope she understood that I meant it, and that I probably don’t understand the whole of her struggles but that I get where she is coming from and how hard this night probably was for her. I understand how risky it was for her to let go and allow her son to have his moment on stage with his band. I felt her stress and how on edge she was. I understand that the hurdle they jumped tonight was on a whole other level, and I hope next time that hurdle doesn’t feel so high.

I told this mom that she was doing a great job because that is what I want to hear. When I make it look easy, remember that it usually is anything but, and more days than not, I feel like I’m not doing enough. It might look like I’m putting this puzzle together with crazy glue, but it’s more like washable school glue that will fall apart at the slightest breeze.

So to all the superhero parents out there I know: keep up the good work. You are doing a great job.

Mother and young son with heads together smiling
Photo source: Thinkstock Images

This post originally appeared on The Autism Chronicles.

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3 Ways Having a Child with Special Needs Can Help Your Career

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I want to highlight how parents of children with special needs are able to succeed in their careers.

Being a parent is hard work. Toss in things like autism, illness, or a chronic condition and it can get a little more interesting. As the mom of a son with some challenges, I’ve discovered there are some really great qualities I and others in my “tribe” share.

1. We look at things differently. We’ve quietly watched other children who are the same age as ours do things our child is still struggling with. We celebrate the smallest of victories where others may take those for granted. How does this translate to work? We are always on the lookout for what’s working, what is not, how to improve the process and how to see through problems with a critical and honest eye.

2. We can pivot when needed. So many of our children have good days and bad days. When those good days are here, we want to take advantage of them and go, go, go! But we also know what to look for when things may be slowing down or come to a screeching halt. We have adapted to be flexible in our thoughts, our actions, and our lives. This can be a real advantage when something at work is just not going well. We can pivot and find ourselves looking at the situation in a new way. When we come back we often times find ourselves looking at that troublesome situation with a fresh perspective.

3. We investigate. Technology has increased so much that those who have a rare disease can find others with the click of a few buttons. Parents of children with special needs are research experts. We can find everything online and are voracious readers. With social media we’ve been known to find and directly correspond with the Doctors and researchers who are at the forefront of the research we are interested in. Ask us to solve problems! We know how to look into situations, research, do field studies, and report back with our best suggestions.

I’d love to hear from you. How have you been shaped by your child with special needs? What strengths and positive traits have you developed that have enhanced your career?

A version of this post originally appeared here.

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