By Alyce Collins
THIS TERRIFIED woman experienced the HOLIDAY FROM HELL when during a five-day break in Mexico she became completely PARALYSED and totally BLIND within days of each other after developing Guillain Barré Syndrome and suffering a build-up of pressure on the brain – at the exact same time.
Non-profit business owner, Mary Catherine Derin (46) from Maryland, USA, was born with hydrocephalus and required a shunt to be placed in her brain when she was a month old due to fluid on her brain. By the time she was five years old, doctors said that Mary Catherine had outgrown her condition and no longer needed the shunt, although it wasn’t removed.
In May 2017, Mary Catherine and her husband, Tony (48) took a trip to Mexico for five days, but on the morning after arriving, Mary Catherine began noticing weakness in her legs and arms and she would lose feeling in them. By the evening, she could no longer walk unassisted.
Mary Catherine also developed blurred vision, so she thought she might have been coming down with the flu and that was why her body became so weak, so she was put on an IV drip.
By the time she returned home, Mary Catherine was completely paralysed from the waist down. She and Tony went straight to hospital where doctors performed a lumbar puncture to extract a sample of spinal fluid before being diagnosed with Guillain Barré Syndrome, an auto immune syndrome which attacks the nervous system.
Mary Catherine’s blurred vision developed into intermittently losing her vision for a few moments before it returned. Doctors couldn’t understand what was causing the sight loss, so after a couple of weeks, Mary Catherine transferred to another hospital because in spite of her GBS diagnosis, she still needed answers about her sight, as she was now totally blind.
The neurosurgeon deemed that Mary Catherine did still need her shunt, but it had been malfunctioning which allowed pressure to build up on Mary Catherine’s optic nerves, affecting her vision. She had emergency brain surgery to replace the shunt. Doctors believe that Mary Catherine’s situation was incredibly rare as she contracted GBS at the same time as losing her sight, becoming paralysed and blind within a matter of days.
“I was born with hydrocephalus and had a shunt placed when I was 28 days old,” said Mary Catherine.
“The shunt drained the excess fluid from my brain. When I was about five years old, the doctor told my parents that I had outgrown my condition and no longer needed my shunt, but it wasn’t removed.
“In May 2017, my husband and I took a trip to Mexico for five days to celebrate our wedding anniversary. The morning after we arrived, I started noticing weakness in my arms and I began to lose feeling in my legs. Then, by that evening I could no longer walk.
“When I started getting weak and losing feeling in my legs, we thought I was coming down with the flu. We ended up going to the on site doctor and he thought I was dehydrated so he gave me IV fluids. When that didn’t help, we knew something was wrong.
“While we were there, I started having spells of blurry vision, but I figured it was just related to getting the flu. I would just have moments when things would go black and then come back blurry.
“By the time we left Mexico I needed full assistance to do everything. So, over the course of five days I went from being able to walk to being completely paralysed from the waist down.
“When we got home from Mexico, we went to the emergency department and, after being there for eight hours, I was admitted. They did a lumbar puncture and at that point they determined I had Guillain Barré Syndrome.
“They treated my GBS, but they couldn’t understand what was causing the problems in my vision. So, after a couple of weeks, I transferred to a new hospital at the start of June.
“Within a day of being admitted to a new hospital, I was completely and totally blind. The neurosurgeon determined that my shunt, which had been deemed no longer necessary, was still necessary, and had been malfunctioning for quite some time.
“This led to pressure build up on the optic nerves, which killed them and led to my vision loss, so I was rushed into surgery and my shunt was replaced. They replaced the shunt in the hopes that the pressure would slowly be released, and my vision would return over time.
“In the weeks after my brain surgery, I started getting some vision back and my neck pain ceased. So, while I no longer had pain, I was still blind and had no use of my legs. Throughout this, I was working closely with physical therapy to start gaining mobility and be able to walk.”
Mary Catherine spent three months at the hospital where she did regular physical therapy to learn how to walk again. GBS left her with very little mobility and strength, but Mary Catherine learned to walk with a walker before then using a cane.
Six months after surgery, Mary Catherine regained some vision, but it’s distorted as she doesn’t have any depth perception or peripheral vision, and she can’t distinguish colours, instead seeing only muted browns.
“When I was released, I could use a walker for short distances, but when we went out, I still needed a wheelchair because I got tired very easily. However, within a month of coming home, with extensive rehab and physical therapy, I could walk with just a cane,” said Mary Catherine.
“It’s believed that my shunt malfunction and contracting Guillain Barré Syndrome were completely unrelated and just happened at the same time. The doctors said it was an incredibly rare situation.
“It’s been interesting adapting to my new normal. I came home from the hospital and I am now legally blind, and very weak with poor mobility. So, I had to modify a lot of things I did before, for example, I can no longer drive because of my blindness. Sometimes, I just have to do certain things differently.
“I used to be a fitness instructor, so it’s been very difficult for me to adjust to losing so much strength and no longer having the mobility I had before.
“However, I’m very grateful to have regained a small amount of my vision back and have the ability to walk now, considering that when I was hospitalised, I was completely blind and paralysed from the waist down.
“Life does not offer roadblocks, it offers detours. It’s all in how you look at something – it could always be worse.”