Gemma Flanagan didn't think much of the pins and needles feeling in her feet when she left a Las Vegas party a few years ago. Initially she blamed it on her high heels. But when she was forced to drag herself along the street after collapsing a few days later, unable to move her legs, or speak or swallow, she realized it was something much more serious.
Guillain-Barre Syndrome is an autoimmune disease that affects one in 50,000 people in the UK. Although the exact cause is unknown, most people develop the syndrome after a viral or bacterial infection. In a nutshell, Guillain-Barre Syndrome simulates a nerve cell, causing the body to attack its own nervous system, frequently causing paralysis and sometimes causing death.
After her night out on the town, Flanagan became a part of the small percentage of people that suffer from this syndrome.
Flanagan, a flight hostess at Heathrow Airport, was on her way to work when she first collapsed. Only two short days after experiencing the initial symptoms of tingling in her legs while in Vegas, Flanagan was admitted to St. Peter’s Hospital in Chertsey, Surrey for tests. A lumbar puncture—that Flanagan couldn’t feel even though most people know it to be quite painful—alerted doctors to the seriousness of her condition and she was almost immediately diagnosed with Guillian-Barre Syndrome.
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Unfortunately for Flanagan her condition slowly worsened during the next few weeks, to the point that she was unable to smile, something that she explained to be one of the most devastating parts of her diagnosis.
“I was devastated,” Flanagan said in an interview with the Daily Mail. “I suddenly realized how serious it all was.” The same night she realized she has lost control of her face muscles, she was admitted to a high dependency unit. After loosing the ability to speak or swallow, she was then admitted to intensive care and told by doctors that there was a possibility that she could die.
Flanagan was in the intensive care unit for 10 days before she began responding to treatment and doctors were able to report a stable condition. A month later, she was moved to a hospital in Liverpool in order to be closer to her family where she began five months of physiotherapy in order to learn how to walk again.
“It was a tough time but every little thing was a big achievement,” Flanagan told the Daily Mail. “I’d get so happy if I could just wiggle my toes or hold a pen.”
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Since returning home from the hospital, Flanagan has started modeling for Models of Diversity, a campaign that supports diverse models.
“I just want people to know that just because someone is disabled, or in a wheelchair or on crutches, it doesn’t mean they’re not like everybody else,” Flanagan said of her decision to model for Models of Diversity.
Flanagan is also a volunteer for the Guillain-Barre Support Group, which can be found at www.gbs.org.uk.