By Alyce Collins
THIS BLOGGER harmlessly stroked a STRAY CAT on holiday, before spending the next year PARALYSED with a nerve-crippling illness that doctors are convinced she caught from the fiendish feline.
Social media blogger, Gemma Birch (24) from Southport, UK, enjoyed an all-inclusive holiday to Albufeira, Portugal in July 2014 when she formed a close bond with a stray black cat who she lovingly named Catarina.
Gemma let the cat into the hotel apartment where she fed her milk and petted her. On the final day of the week-long holiday Gemma started vomiting and became faint during the flight home. As soon as she landed, she went straight to Southport Hospital because she knew her sickness was serious.
The hospital ran tests and doctors found campylobacter, found in raw poultry, in Gemma’s stool. This baffled Gemma who had been pescatarian for a year at that point. Doctors asked whether she’d come into contact with any animals, so she explained that she’d been stroking Catarina for the last few days.
Gemma spent a week in hospital on a drip for severe food poisoning after getting infected by the stray cat. It was concluded that Catarina had rummaged through the hotel bins.
Gemma was discharged after a week and doctors recommended bed rest for further recovery. However, Gemma fell out of bed one night and woke up unable to feel her legs. She scratched at them and caused them to bleed but couldn’t feel anything. Her dad took her back to the hospital immediately where she was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS).
Within hours, Gemma was paralysed from the hips down and spent three weeks in hospital before spending eight months in rehab, learning how to walk and be independent again.
“In July 2014 I went on holiday to Portugal and I fell in love with this stray cat who we named Catarina,” said Gemma.
“We let her into our apartment as she followed us everywhere. I stroked her and fed her milk.
“On the last day of the holiday I was very ill. I was up vomiting through the night, then on the plane home I felt faint and couldn’t keep anything down. When we got to passport control in England, my stomach bloated, and I looked nine months pregnant despite having no food or liquid in me.
“They found campylobacter in my stool but as I am a pescatarian, and don’t eat chicken, they asked me if I had come into contact with animals, so I said yes.
“I was in hospital for a week on a drip as I was very dehydrated. It was a severe food poisoning reaction, but I was infected from the cat. It’s assumed the cat rummaged through the bins and I picked up the infection that way.
“I was getting weaker, but the doctors just said it’s because I had a serious reaction to the illness, plenty of bed rest would make me better.
“When I was home, I kept falling over and losing my balance. I went to my GP on two occasions and they said the same, that I was just getting over the food poisoning.
“In the middle of the night I fell out of bed because I couldn’t feel my legs slide off. I just remember feeling like I was being dragged out of bed because I couldn’t feel anything.
“When I sat up, I realised I couldn’t feel the carpet beneath my legs. I started scratching them and felt nothing. One of the scratches made my leg bleed and I didn’t feel anything. I screamed for my dad and he carried me to the car, and we went straight to Southport Hospital.
“While in the waiting area, I Googled ‘food poisoning, numbness, weakness’ and GBS came up. I showed my dad and we knew it was that. The doctors in the hospital agreed, and tests proved I had it.
“The next day, I was paralysed from my hips down. I couldn’t do anything independently. I had to rely on nurses to take me to the loo and wash me. I lost control of my bowels and bladder and I couldn’t use my arms or hands because they were so weak.
“I was on IVIG treatment for two weeks to stop the GBS progressing. After three weeks of treatment I was then transferred to the Walton Centre for rehabilitation for three months.
“It was there that they conducted an ECG where they could see nerve damage in my legs as a result of GBS. GBS is when your body doesn’t know what to do with the infection, so it kills off everything it can, leg and arm tissue and muscle.
“If you don’t receive treatment quick it will affect other muscles like your bladder and bowel, which happened to me.
“After that I was transferred to St Helen’s for four months, learning to walk and use my arms again.”
Throughout this period, Gemma was in her final year of university studying for a Psychology degree. Tutors suggested she defer a year, but she persisted and proudly managed to graduate alongside her twin, Jessica.
It took 14 months for Gemma to recover, however when she’s unwell she feels the residual effects of the damage GBS caused her body.
“In all this time, I was in my final year of university studying Psychology. My tutors suggest I defer, but I didn’t want to,” said Gemma.
“I didn’t want GBS to ruin that experience for me and stop me from graduating with my twin.
“When I managed to get my head around what was happening, I was able to watch my lectures through PowerPoint and do my own research. I was also talking to my tutor a lot through email.
“Walking on my own took around a year but I still needed crutches to walk far. I was properly recovered around 14 months after going into hospital.
“Whenever I have an infection or injury, it affects my nerves and tingling sensations, numbness and weakness occur.
“As much as I love them, I couldn’t touch a stray cat now. I love pet cats and would stroke them as I would hope they haven’t rummaged around hotel bins.
“Once I got into mindfulness, I changed my perception and stopped being a victim, instead I was thankful for the experience as I have learned so much.
“I don’t want people to wait until they have a negative life experience to appreciate life and live in the present. I hope my story inspires people to appreciate everything they have.”
You can learn more about Gemma’s story by visiting @sorsasta.