For Rare Disease Day, I am sharing my story of coping with a serious rare illness called Transverse Myelitis, which I got in October 2008. I realised I never shared my personal story with serious illness in any detail and given Transverse Myelitis is rare, it feels appropriate to share it today. I originally wrote this article in 2016 for the Transverse Myelitis Association in the USA and it first appeared here. I have made some changes to the original article.

About Transverse Myelitis

Transverse Myelitis, which I’ll refer to as TM, is a rare neurological inflammatory condition resulting in inflammation in the spinal cord. The inflammation can be at any point along your spinal cord and you will be affected in your body from that point downwards. For example, if you have inflammatory lesions in the cervical region, your arms, torso and legs will be affected. If the lesions are in the thoracic region, your torso and legs will be affected but not your arms.

It is an auto-immune disorder which means that your immune system attacks your body instead of the virus, infection or whatever it was supposed to be dealing with. So it is not an illness you ‘catch’ from anything or anyone; it’s not contagious or genetic.

Transverse Myelitis is in the same disease family as Multiple Sclerosis, just much more rare. Approximately 300 people per year are diagnosed with TM in the UK.

The onset of TM can be sudden over a few hours, or more gradual over days, weeks or even months. Red flag symptoms can include back pain (not just lower back pain), paralysis or muscle weakness in arms and/or legs (and hence mobility issues), bladder and bowel issues, sexual dysfunction, sensory disturbance (like a numbing sensation), and pain which can feel like a shooting, stabbing, crawling, freezing, hot or banding like pain.

TM is typically a one-off episode which can leave a person with ongoing residual symptoms such as paralysis, weakness, mobility issues, bladder and bowel issues, sensory disturbance, neuropathic pain, fatigue, and depression. The recovery process is a very uncertain one and doctors cannot predict how much functionality a person will regain and how long it will take. Recovery will start a few weeks to months after onset and can continue for more than two years.

Every person is affected differently by TM. Some people can be left with a lifelong disability, others can make a good recovery. For some people, TM is the first presentation of Multiple Sclerosis or Neuromyelitis Optica. For a small percentage of people, TM can be recurrent.

Awareness ribbon for Transverse Myelitis

My story of Transverse Myelitis – The onset

Today is 13 October 2016 (when I originally wrote this article), 8 years to the day I was advised by my GP to go to A&E (Accident and Emergency) as soon as possible. I was feeling strong pins and needles, and shooting, stabbing pain all throughout the saddle area. Sitting for any length of time was painful. So was standing. I felt like I poo-ed my pants and was constantly checking whether I had. I hadn’t. Walking was painful. I was due to deliver a presentation that evening, but cancelled it as going to A&E took priority.

In A&E, a host of tests were done. Despite being in pain, I was pretty relaxed, chatting with my other half and making my way through a bag of Haribo sweets I asked him to bring me. (Learning: Do not eat sweets whilst in A&E. It wreaks havoc on your blood sugars, and the nurses ask you all sorts of questions about whether you are diabetic and may not be convinced if you tell them no.) They wanted to admit me. I was meant to fly to the USA in three days for my sister’s wedding, so I wanted to return home. They strongly advised me to follow their advice. I did.

Tests commenced. Long sessions in the MRI scanner. A lumbar puncture that required a longer needle than what the doctors were initially using, and 3-4 tries before they got a clean sample of my cerebrospinal fluid. I had to remind the very excited medical students that there was a patient at the end of the needle who was scared, in discomfort and needed to be looked after.

With each passing day, the pins and needles and stabbing and shooting pain progressed down my body. Banding pain joined the noisy party inside of me. I felt like I couldn’t breathe and I could feel the panic rising. I finally figured out I could breathe and that what I was experiencing was some kind of pain.

Walking felt like pushing through the heaviest of treacle and my legs felt twice the size they actually were. I couldn’t walk more than 10 steps so acquiesced to using a wheelchair. I never made it to my sister’s wedding.

The pain, odd sensations and banding crept above my waist. More tests were ordered. Water hitting my skin and wearing clothes became very painful. I couldn’t sense temperature either. I still showered telling myself I was going to maintain a routine and be clean despite everything. Time feels plentiful in hospital so I laid there doing visualisations of a healing white light going up and down my spine and forced myself to walk as far as I could however badly I was walking.

A surprise for me and a highlight for the neurologist leading my case was accidentally discovering that I have another rare neurological condition in her area of expertise of movement disorders – geniospasm. It is a rare hereditary movement disorder where the chin shakes at random times and often for no reason. So I was discharged from hospital with two rare neurological conditions. I’ve had geniospasm all my life and never knew it was a recognised disorder and rare.

In relation to Transverse Myelitis, they didn’t tell me I had that. They only told me that I had ‘inflammation of the spinal cord’ with two lesions at C4 and C5, was seriously ill, should not work for several months and rest. I was worried as my job had been made redundant earlier in the summer and I had been actively looking for work.

After hospital – Learning to live with Transverse Myelitis

I returned home from hospital after 2 weeks. I had to rest a lot because of the fatigue and pain. A two block walk to the store and back would tire me out so much I slept for the rest of the day. As we were technically on holiday, my other half was able to be at home with me for a few days to make sure I could look after myself. The day he returned to work, he learned that his job was being made redundant.

Picture of a person with fatigue sleeping on a sofa

When fatigue is present, resting is important

I learned of my diagnosis in a letter the neurologist sent to my GP, a copy of which was sent to me. In it was written ‘cervical myelitis’. So I naturally turned to Google and what I read scared me. I experienced so much anxiety and fear for my health, my future and my life. The quality of my sleep wasn’t great due to the anxiety, pain and geniospasm (for some reason the TM re-triggered the geniospasm and my badly shaking chin would wake me up at night).

I couldn’t do much at all and was bored senseless. So I started genealogical research. Although it was painful and slow to type, it was a good temporary distraction from my health issues. And I usually had an interesting piece of info to share with my husband about my family at the end of the day.

In time, I found the Transverse Myelitis Association in the USA and the Transverse Myelitis Society in the UK where I live. The information was limited at that time but a talk by a neurologist at the TM Society’s London support group answered some of my questions. I also had regular follow-up visits with the neurologist which helped too. I was one of the lucky ones to see a neurologist regularly post-diagnosis and I think the geniospasm had a role to play in that.

Logo for the Transverse Myelitis Society

The months passed and bit by bit, I improved. The fatigue started to dissipate. I swam and did yoga. I started a new job and was thankful it was part-time because I was still experiencing fatigue and pain. I started studying for my first coaching qualification and that helped me immensely to come to terms with what happened.

A completely separate issue from the Transverse Myelitis was learning at this time that we would not be able to have children. Between the death of my father in 2007, caring for my mother after she had emergency heart surgery in Spring 2008, my job being made redundant soon after that, getting seriously ill in Autumn 2008, then my husband’s job being made redundant, that news felt like another blow and a particularly cruel one. People with serious health issues and particularly chronic ones often mention about not having a choice to go on, you just do. I get that.

When a #seriousillness or #seriousinjury disrupts your life, people often ask how do you go on. The option of doing nothing doesn’t feel like a great choice to make. So you just get on with your life the best you can. tell a friend

Nine months later, I still had sensory disturbance, neuropathic pain, some fatigue, and didn’t have full sensory awareness in my hands. The neurologist said that might be it for the rest of my life. It felt like something finished when I heard that prognosis. A finality. On the outside, I looked and functioned normally. All things considered, my recovery was a good one.

Making meaning of my illness experience

I got involved with the Transverse Myelitis Society and offered my skillset of NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming), coaching and adult learning to use for the benefit of members through delivering presentations and writing articles. I had been using my skillset on myself and found it immensely helpful.

In 2010, I was asked to join the TM Society’s management committee. In 2011, I started a masters in coaching psychology and focused my research on the impact of coaching on the wellbeing of people living with TM and their primary caregivers. I included the carer, often a family member, as I saw how they are also affected. I was curious whether coaching could help people find a way to live well (enough) with the impact of the condition. I learned it can. You can read a summary of that research project here.

In April 2013, I became Chair of the UK TM Society for a three-year term which finished in April 2016. It was an opportunity to use my skillset in a greater way for the benefit of our members. This aligned with my values of being in service to others for a good cause and developing myself. I enjoyed introducing new services, events and information for our members: a Coaching Bursary Scheme, an Equipment Grant Scheme, the Family Weekend in the UK, and information such as the TM Condition Insight Report and TM Frequently Asked Questions document. I enjoyed having the opportunity through charities such as the Neurological Alliance, National Voices and Spinal Injuries Association to raise awareness and represent the needs of TM Society members across the charity sector and amongst government officials and the NHS.

Life beyond Transverse Myelitis

Even though I have stepped back from the Chair role and the TM Society’s management committee, I am still involved as a volunteer. Separately, I am helping a neurologist design a research project on TM and we hope it will get the necessary funding. I have studied Acceptance Commitment Therapy because I wanted to learn different approaches to helping people through the process of acceptance of difficult situations. I’ve also been studying Systemic Constellations to help people resolve issues relating to family dynamics and illness. This all feels like good work to be doing. It is also work I very much enjoy and wonder if ‘work’ is the right word. I am grateful for the opportunity.

So I think back to 9 years ago and to the day I felt like something finished when I was told my prognosis. I notice how my body is now. The constant pins and needles in my hands and hence reduced sensory awareness. How anything I touch feels like sandpaper, and the cramping in my fingers during the winter months. The random sensory disturbance which happens throughout my body. Some bladder and bowel issues which are manageable. The buzzing I feel in my spinal cord whenever I bend my head forward. These symptoms are all invisible and are manageable. I use the symptoms as a reminder to look after myself and live my life well.

What we think is broken can actually nurture beauty

When living with a #serioushealthissue #chronicillness our bodies may have been wounded and at times they may feel broken. But beauty can spring forth from the brokenness #KintsugiBowls #postraumaticgrowth tell a friend

When I reflect on my involvement with the TM Society, the healthcare profession and charity sector in the UK, and my coaching work, I think of Kintsugi bowls. They are Japanese bowls that broke and are mended with gold seams. It’s about honouring the wound and beauty from the brokenness. It is a symbol of rebirth, that nothing is ever truly broken beyond repair.

So our bodies may have been wounded. At times we may feel that they are broken. But beauty can spring forth from the brokenness. And that is my hope for all of us affected by a serious health issue, including our children and families: may we nurture and grow the beauty that we still hold within us.

Picture of a Japanese kintsugi bowl and how life with a serious health issue can be like that

What’s it like for you?

What has your experience with a serious illness or injury been like? What have you done differently in your life as a result? What would you like to do differently? Share your story in the comments below.

If you are living with a chronic illness or the after effects of a serious illness or injury, or are caring for someone who is, and you would like support to rebuild and renew your life, have a look at how we can work together and get in touch for a free no obligation consultation.

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© Copyright Barbara Babcock 2018

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