A lifestyle blogger’s love of animals was tested after she contracted an incurable, life-changing disease from a feral cat.
Gemma Birch (above) was vacationing in Albufeira, Portugal in June 2015 when she struck up a friendship with a seemingly harmless stray cat who would hang out on the patio of her rental apartment.
Over the course of the week, the 25-year-old Southport, England native started giving the animal milk from a bowl and eventually let her inside. Gemma told People that she felt “fine all week” and was “sad” to leave her new friend as the trip came to an end.
But on the last night, she started vomiting and suffering from diarrhea. Her condition got worse during the plane ride home; her stomach had swelled up so much, she recalled looking “nine months pregnant” by the time she landed.
Alarmed by her weak and pale appearance when she got home, Gemma’s father told her she needed to go to the hospital immediately.
She had spent a week undergoing tests in the ICU before doctors confirmed that Gemma had been infected with campylobacter, a common cause of food poisoning. It wasn’t until another round of tests when doctors discovered she had contracted the infection from her feline friend.
Gemma was instructed to get home and rest until her symptoms went away, but they only got worse. She remembered:
“I couldn’t walk. I kept falling and losing my balance…. Eventually I stopped going because I felt like I was bugging them.”
Then, two weeks after leaving the hospital, Gemma woke up around 3 a.m. because she had fallen out of bed and “couldn’t feel [her] legs on the sheets or [her] feet the carpet.” She recalled:
“I started scratching my legs so hard that they bled, but I still couldn’t feel it. I screamed for my dad, and he took me to the hospital.”
Once she was back in the emergency room, Gemma said she googled her symptoms and the campylobacter bacteria to discover something called Guillain-Barré syndrome.
After showing her findings to the doctor, he told her that GBS — an incurable neurological disorder where the body’s immune system attacks its nervous system — was rare, but said he would run tests. The following morning, her symptoms were even worse: she was temporarily paralyzed, one of the symptoms of GBS.
The same day, she received her official diagnosis and started receiving treatments for the disease. After two months of transferring between hospitals and speaking with different neurology experts, Gemma was sent to a rehab center where she tried to combat her paralysis from the neck down.
For the next year, the blogger was re-learning how to do physical tasks “walking, writing and picking up a mug” — all while taking university classes so she could graduate on time with her twin sister.
While Gemma is now able to work, drive and run her life lifestyle blog, her GBS symptoms can still be triggered when she gets sick or exercises too much.
GBS is most common in people older than 50, but it can strike at any time. It’s incredibly rare to contract the syndrome from touching a live animal (contracting it from uncooked poultry is more likely), and doctors aren’t exactly sure how the disease progresses.
Gemma isn’t letting it hold her back, though. In addition to maintaining her blog, she works as a psychotherapist and motivational speaker. Check out her website Sorsasta to be inspired!
[Image via Instagram]
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