A 21-year-old who woke up with neck ache has told of how, just hours later, she was left paralysed.
Helen Fincham woke up on 24 August with a sore neck and first thought she’d slept in a funny position, but by midday she could no longer feel her legs.
The store manager, from Bridgend, Wales, thought she was having a heart attack after her arms went numb and she became short of breath.
When paramedics arrived and asked her to stand, she collapsed leaving everyone baffled.
She has been paralysed from the neck down ever since.
After two months of tests, Helen was eventually diagnosed with Transverse Myelitis – an extremely rare neurological condition where the spinal cord becomes inflamed and damages nerve fibres.
She is now undergoing physio daily and despite not knowing what the future holds she remains positive and is determined to walk again.
Now she’s raising awareness about the condition and is warning others to live life to the fullest.
Recalling the ordeal, she said: “When I realised I could no longer feel my legs I was horrified. It was like I had become paralysed overnight, my whole life had been turned upside down in a matter of hours.
“I woke up and it was like any other day, I went downstairs and had something to eat with my parents. But as I bent down to pick up the washing I realised my neck was a bit sore.”
She said she presumed the pain was because she’d slept funny and didn’t think anything of it. But minutes after, she became short of breath and her arm was numb.
“I thought I was having a heart attack and that I was going to die, my parents rushed home and called 999,” she said.
“I collapsed when paramedics asked me to stand up and I’ve been paralysed ever since.”
She continued: “It still feels like I’m dreaming some days and that none of this is real, just two weeks before I’d been on holiday to Ibiza with friends having the time of my life.”
After being taken to Morriston Hospital in Swansea, doctors were left dumbfounded that Helen could no longer walk or feel anything from the neck down.
She was faced with an agonising wait for two months as MRI scans, chest scans, a lumbar puncture and blood tests all came back normal.
She was finally diagnosed with Transverse Myelitis in rehab after a spine scan showed her spinal cord was inflamed.
Helen said: “I was so overwhelmed I just kept screaming and crying, no-one could give me answers.
“What made things worse was when I first got to A&E, none of the medics believed me they just kept telling me to stand, even when I was crying my eyes out screaming at them I couldn’t.
“I think doctors need to be more open minded and careful about how they treat patients with neurological and paralysis symptoms, it really was traumatic.
“I had so many tests including a plasma exchange and the nurse told me to squeeze her hand when they put the anaesthetic needle in my neck.
“But I couldn’t feel my hands so I couldn’t use them which made me so upset, I couldn’t even feel anything when they did a lumbar puncture.”
She added: “The condition is so rare that I still have so many unanswered questions like why and how but no-one can answer them, I just don’t know what to think.
“In the beginning I thought maybe I’d been bitten on holiday or I’d contracted some kind of virus but I was never poorly and there were no signs of anything else.
“It’s just a complete mystery and I don’t know if it will ever be solved.
“I want to thank all the staff there though that helped in the early days, they went above and beyond, despite having no answers they made those first few weeks of limbo so much easier.”
Three months after becoming paralysed, Helen can now feel some sensation when touched and has limited movement in her hands.
She added: “I now have physio and hydrotherapy every week and my next goal is to be able to get in and out of bed by myself and then there’s a chance I’ll be able to go home.
“It’s just taking a long time because I’ve become so weak, as I can’t move.
“Some days are really difficult but I keep going and try to stay strong for my family and friends who have been incredibly supportive.
“They’ve all done so much for me, especially my family who do everything from shaving my legs to painting my nails.
“People take the easiest tasks for granted and I hope one day I can do simple things like tie my own hair up, do my makeup, and brush my own teeth.”
Helen’s sister, Jessica Fincham, 26, a hairdresser, has started fundraising for Helen on GoFundMe to help her parents get the necessary adaptations to their home.
Jessica said: “Our whole family has been absolutely devastated since that Wednesday morning.
“Helen has always been healthy and she works so hard, we have no idea why this has happened to her. She was just like any other 21-year-old having the time of her life before all of this.
“We are all now trying to work towards getting Helen home by May and for this my parents’ house will need to be specially adapted.
“Helen is such a determined person, I know that if anyone can come back from this she can. We will never give up hope and I will continue to be there for my baby sister every step of the way.”
In just over a week Jessica’s £1,000 target has been smashed and the family are over the moon with the response.
Helen said: “I can’t thank everyone enough for their kind donations, no-one knows how much it means to me.
“I’m just so grateful that I’m still alive, I do have down days but I’m learning to cope with everything.
“I used to think I was in the worst situation possible but now I’ve realised that I’m still healthy and my things could be much worse.
“I just hope that one day I will have more answers, it’s the unknown that scares me the most. But I will continue to fight this.”
Lew Gray, co-founder of the Transverse Myelitis Society, which has over 2,000 members, explained that Transverse Myelitis is an inflammation of the spinal cord.
“TM is assumed to be autoimmune, i.e. caused by the body’s own immune system ‘mistakenly’ attacking the nerve tissue in the spinal cord,” he said.
“The onset can be gradual but is usually pretty sudden sometimes immediate. Some cases of TM have a preceding infection but the cause is usually unknown.
“The symptoms of TM depend on which particular areas of the spinal cord are damaged. Most people get some recovery over weeks and months following TM as the spinal cord nerves rebuild themselves.
“Rehabilitation, especially physiotherapy, is important for recovery but is often hard to access over long term in NHS.
“Some people can recover fully, but most people have some long-lasting symptoms which may be invisible.”