Real Life: From High Heels to Paralysis

Gemma Flanagan put the pain in her feet down to her fancy shoes. Days later, she was fighting for her life…
ByKristina Beanland and Lauren SteadmanSaturday , 22 February 2014
Gemma now uses crutches
Gemma now uses crutches
“They told me I might die. A week before I’d been having the time of my life”
“They told me I might die. A week before I’d been having the time of my life”

As a glamorous air hostess, Gemma Flanagan thought nothing of tottering about on six-inch heels. So when sickening pain shot through her feet after a US stopover, she assumed her party lifestyle was to blame. “When I woke up after the night out in Vegas I was really achy and had pins and needles in my feet. I’m a really girly girl and love wearing heels, so I’m used to getting sore feet after a night out. I didn’t think anything of it – I even worked on the flight home. Never in a million years did I think I’d end up paralysed.”

Mystery Illness
Although Gemma, 29, tried to ignore her symptoms, when she set off for work a couple of days later things took a turn for the worse. “I left my house and made it onto the street, but I got as far as crossing the road and I just collapsed. I was so embarrassed because I was in my full cabin crew uniform and I couldn’t get myself up – I had to literally drag myself across the floor.”
Gemma was admitted to hospital, where doctors were baffled by her symptoms. It was only when she was given a lumbar puncture (a needle in the base of her spine to withdraw samples of fluid) that things became clear. “When they introduced the needle I was warned it would be painful but I couldn’t feel a thing. I think everyone knew there and then that something bad was going on.”

Attacked by Her Own Body
Three days after she returned from Las Vegas, Gemma was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome. The rare, sometimes fatal, condition makes the body attack its own nervous system, causing paralysis and even death. “To be honest I had no idea what it was – I couldn’t even pronounce it – but I wasn’t too worried,” she says. “Doctors told me it was a mild case and I’d be home in three days.” But instead her symptoms got worse. “It was weird. I felt fine, but my body just wasn’t working. Then my friend came to visit me and she asked me what was wrong with my face. I looked in the mirror, and when I tried to smile my mouth just wouldn’t move. I was devastated. I suddenly realised how serious it all was.” That night Gemma was transferred to the high-dependency ward. “It was scary because everyone else there was full of tubes and wires, but I didn’t feel ill at all.”

A Rapid Descent 

Soon, Gemma’s condition began to deteriorate further, and after losing her ability to speak or swallow she was transferred to intensive care. “When they moved me to intensive care, I was warned that I might not be able to breathe for myself, and I’d need a tube fitted to feed me. They even mentioned the possibility that I could die. I just couldn’t believe it. A week before, I’d been having the time of my life in Vegas.”

Astoundingly, after 10 days in intensive care Gemma responded to treatment and her condition stabilised. A month later, she was allowed to move to a hospital nearer her family, in north-west England. “Back in Liverpool I really started to feel better and was told I could start rehabilitation. I was warned recovery would be a long and slow process but by this point I could eat and speak again, so I was starting to feel like myself.”

The Road to Recovery
Gemma battled through five gruelling months of physio as she learned to walk again. “It was a tough time but every little thing was a big achievement. I’d get so happy if I could just wiggle my toes or hold a pen. The staff were amazing, encouraging me to do normal things and doing stuff like paint my nails.”

Gemma finally returned home and has since been going from strength to strength. She’s even started modelling, for an agency that campaigns for the media to feature more people with disabilities. “I was browsing the internet for some customised crutches on a site called Glamsticks, and on its website I came across Models of Diversity. 

“I got in touch straight away and had some test shots done – I couldn’t believe it! I just want people to know that just because someone is in a wheelchair or on crutches, it doesn’t mean they’re not like everybody else.” 

Stars Who Came Back from the Brink

Rachel Bilson
At age 14 Rachel was involved in a head-on crash when the car she was travelling in slammed into a truck. The Hart of Dixie actress was unconscious for four days and says she still suffers from occasional migraines and memory loss as a result of her injuries, which left her with a scar above her right eyebrow.

Ozzy Osbourne
Surprisingly, Ozzy’s most memorable near-death experience had nothing to do with illicit substances. The singer’s chest was crushed when a quad bike he was riding flipped on top of him. He spent eight days in a coma and fractured eight ribs and a vertebra. He later said the incident made him “grow up”.

Orlando Bloom
The Lord of the Rings star was almost crippled when he broke his back after falling three storeys – he’d been trying to climb from one building to another with friends. The accident, when he was 21, left him paralysed for a few days, and doctors feared he might never walk again, but he bounced back following major surgery.

Cheryl Cole
The X Factor judge was given just 24 hours to live in 2010 after catching a deadly strain of malaria while on holiday in Tanzania. She later collapsed and was placed in intensive care. She has since made a full recovery.

Related Articles

When Claire Coles booked a beach trip to Egypt, she didn’t know that her size wo
When Lauren Yardley went for plastic surgery, she never thought it would go so d
A new mum was so shocked to overhear cruel workplace gossip about her size she v