Real Life

'I was totally paralysed'

After a rare disease left her immobile, this Kiwi mum is taking on the ultimate endurance race.

By Morgan Johnston
Kathy Eggers

Five years ago, Hawke’s Bay mother Kathy Eggers feared she would never again lift one arm over the other to hug her children. Today, after being told to prepare for life in a wheelchair, she is instead set to compete in one of the country’s toughest events in March next year.

The Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain Ironman New Zealand takes no prisoners and many seasoned athletes won’t cross the finish line after the gruelling 3.8km swim, 180km bike ride and 42km marathon run. But determination saw Kathy defy medical expectations and get onto her feet – and into her running shoes. It’s the same drive that will see her join an elite group of Kiwi athletes for the event.

In 2007, at only 33, the healthy young nurse and mother of three began to notice tingling sensations in her hands and feet. While walking her eldest child to school with two toddlers in a pram, she collapsed crossing the road – losing the pram and, soon after, all her hopes and dreams for the future.

Over the coming days Kathy was left a virtual quadriplegic in intensive care with her former colleagues now scrambling to find the reason for her decline. Kathy was diagnosed with an extremely rare disease called chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), similar to Guillain–Barré syndrome and multiple sclerosis. It occurs when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks part of the nervous system, causing muscle weakness and paralysis.

The hardest part of her illness was Kathy’s inability to do simple tasks with her children, or even hug them.
The hardest part of her illness was Kathy’s inability to do simple tasks with her children, or even hug them.

Kathy lost all control of her muscles and faced the prospect of never walking unaided again. “I was totally paralysed. To move my fingertip felt like trying to move a house. I was facing life as a total dependent in a wheelchair,” explains Kathy.

Her darkest hour came when her two-year-old daughter was lifted onto her stomach and the nurse had to wrap Kathy’s arms around her child. “I just didn’t want my children to have no memories of their mother hugging them. I knew I had to believe in myself and find the courage to push the boundaries and hope for the best. If I hadn’t been a mum I may have accepted things, but my stubborn side took over.”

Kathy’s recovery started with tiny achievements – holding cutlery, sitting unaided and eventually being able to return home in a powered wheelchair, relying heavily on the support of her husband, family and friends.

“When I moved from being a quadriplegic, every small accomplishment was a triumph, even if it was just cleaning my teeth. I kept moving the goalposts until I was walking.”

Along the way were constant reminders of what she had lost – especially as a mother. “Once I had to just sit and watch as my two-year-old fell from the couch right beside me and split her chin open. “I couldn’t even hold her while she had the stitches put in. You just feel like a failure.”

Having completed her first triathlon just prior to her diagnosis, Kathy was determined to prove she could return to that physical benchmark. Between treatments of ongoing blood transfusions, high doses of steroids and immunosuppressants, Kathy built up her strength and in 2009 ran her first half marathon.

Iron woman: Kathy was determined to beat the odds.
Iron woman: Kathy was determined to beat the odds.

“I couldn’t feel my legs the whole way through, but when I crossed the line I just felt a sense of relief that I wasn’t being taken away in an ambulance.”

Unknowingly at the time, Kathy was suffering the first of three relapses, each of them putting her back on crutches or in a wheelchair and forcing her to start the process of recovery from scratch.

Each time she has done that, Kathy’s had a goal to fight for and has achieved every one – a marathon, two half Ironman competitions and New Zealand’s highest mountain race, the Kaweka Challenge – a 28km run across the shoulder of Hawke’s Bay. But it was a meeting with a leading US-based neurologist that led to Kathy’s ultimate goal: the full Ironman.

“The specialist told me there was no chance of me reaching a remission phase, where I can remain stable without treatment. “I decided that while I could use my body, I would. They told me I might never run again. I just never let myself believe that.”

Kathy is also looking forward to completing another milestone – running the Taupo half marathon. Despite an uncertain future, Kathy’s commitment to finishing the Ironman is fuelled by raising awareness of her rare disease and a desire to prove that anyone can set themselves a seemingly impossible personal challenge and complete it. “I will cross that line and if I can do it, anyone can.”

Eva Bradley

The Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain Ironman New Zealand is on Saturday, March 2, 2013 from 7am in Taupo.

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