After petting and tending to a stray cat during a week-long vacation, UK-based Gemma Birch started to feel frail, was vomiting, and had an extremely swollen stomach, People magazine first reported. Following an emergency trip to the hospital, Birch was told she had an infection from campylobacter bacteria, which is most commonly linked to food poisoning.
Birch's health complications didn't end there though. She began stumbling and feeling off balance and, three weeks after her initial hospital visit, she suddenly fell out of bed and could no longer feel her legs.
"I started scratching my legs so hard that they bled, but I still couldn't feel it," Birch told People. "I screamed for my dad, and he took me to the hospital."
While in the emergency room, Birch looked up her symptoms online and came across information about Guillian-Barré syndrome, which she shared with her doctors. It was then that they finally diagnosed her with the rare neurological disorder that affects one in 100,000 people annually, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
While doctors are unsure what exactly causes Guillian-Barré syndrome, they do know it is not contagious or related to genetics, according to NIH. Rather, they believe it happens when a person's immune system tries to fight off a bacterial or viral infection and confuses the body's nerves as part of the bacteria or virus. For Birch, the initial campylobacter bacteria she contracted from the cat may have been the cause of her Guillian-Barré syndrome, but Dr. David Simpson, a neurologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, NY, said that her case is rare.
"Generally, Guillian-Barré isn't associated with contact with animals, but it follows various illnesses, like a gastrointestinal illness or something associated with diarrhea, since that is where people can contract campylobacter bacteria," Simpson, who did not treat Birch, told Business Insider.
When a person has Guillian-Barré syndrome, their body basically attacks itself and prevents nerves from transmitting signals to the brain, making it difficult or even impossible for a person to walk, talk, chew, or swallow.
Symptoms range in severity, according to the Mayo Clinic, but usually start with tingling sensations in a person's fingers or toes. Birch was initially able to move her legs, but the symptoms eventually progressed to a point where she couldn't walk and needed help breathing, she told People.
According to Simpson, if a person can no longer walk or if the tingling sensations they initially feel in their toes travel up their body to their thighs or arms, it's a sign they should go to the emergency room.
"It could lead to death if not adequately supported," he said. "It can go from someone having normal function[s] to being paralyzed in a hospital bed on a respirator within hours or days."
Currently, there is no way to cure Guillian-Barré syndrome, but people with the condition can take certain measures to reduce their symptoms.
First, NIH wrote that people with the disorder can undergo plasma exchange or immunoglobin therapy to reduce the severity of a person's symptoms. According to Simpson, immunoglobin therapy is usually the first treatment measure physicians take since it is less invasive than plasma exchange. Another even less invasive option is physical therapy, which can help keep muscles flexible and improve a person's day-to-day activities like walking.
In Birch's case, she completed immunoglobin therapy and later attended physical therapy to lessen the effects of the neck-down paralysis she experienced. After a year of rehabilitation, Birch told People she was able to dance with the help of crutches.
Birch said her symptoms are now typically manageable, and she is able to do daily activities like drive and walk. On some occasions, however, her paralysis-related symptoms return, like when she works out too much or gets sick. In those cases, she needs to use crutches to move around, she said. These flare-ups are common for people with Guillain-Barré, Simpson said.
Despite these setbacks, Birch was able to graduate from university on time, something that was extremely important to her, she told People.
"I just thought, GBS has taken everything from me, but it's not going to take away my degree."
Gemma Birch did not immediately reply to Business Insider's request for comment.
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