Woman's health concerns: Sharron Gardner fought for the right diagnosis

Let down by docs, Sharron did some digging to come up with the right diagnosis

By Cloe Willetts
When Sharron Gardner suddenly felt her legs and feet go numb last August, the 60-year-old's life took a drastic turn. The gym-loving Manukau local couldn't change clothes or go to the bathroom unassisted and for three months, she was misdiagnosed with a stress-related neurological disorder.
In reality, Sharron had rare disease transverse myelitis, caused by inflammation of the spinal cord.
"Before, I was at the gym three times a week and busy in the home. All of a sudden, I was useless," recalls Sharron, who suffered numbness in her mouth and tongue a day before she lost feeling in her legs.
"My husband Lyall had to pick me up and help put me into a chair because I lost the ability to walk or balance."
Sharron's first visit to hospital ended with a diagnosis of functional neurological disorder (FND), a condition that affects body and brain function and can be caused by stress or emotional trauma.
Professionals tried to pinpoint reasons for Sharron's possible stress, including overworking, and suggested she make lifestyle changes at home to help manage the condition.
Sharron's first visit to hospital, bedridden and paralysed from the waist down.
But Sharron wasn't convinced, believing something else was going on with her health.
"People with FND have fits and I didn't. I kept querying it and they were shoving all these papers at me saying I had to come to terms with having FND."
Seen by multiple neurologists and a psychologist, who shaped her treatment around FND, Sharron was told it was time to go home from hospital in early September.
"I still wasn't doing very well and after nine days back at home, I ended up deteriorating and falling over, so my husband carried me into the emergency department at hospital," she recalls.
"A week later, I was bedridden."
Next, Sharron went into a rehab ward, where she made small improvements with her balance, but that plateaued.
Again, as December neared, she was told it was time to return home to recover with a wheelchair and the help of carers.
Sharron's grandson visits her in the rehab unit.
Inspired by her late mother, who passed away from leukaemia that went undetected for too long, Sharron refused to give up.
"One of the things she told me when she was dying of cancer is that you know your own body, and if you're ever in doubt, question it. Without that thought in my head, I mightn't have kept questioning my own diagnosis."
Her hopes lifted in December when another patient entered the rehab with the same symptoms. He'd been diagnosed with transverse myelitis, which is caused by inflammation of the spinal cord.
"I told the doctors I needed to have a lumbar puncture," says Sharron, explaining the procedure would test the fluid in her spine for serious infection.
"I'd never been given one and I had the same symptoms as the other patient."
After relentlessly advocating for herself, Sharron finally got her wish when another neurologist was brought in for more testing.
Sharron relies on a walker as she rebuilds her muscles.
"The first thing he said after doing an external examination was, 'Sorry, but you don't have FND, there's something wrong with your spine,'" she says. "It was finally discovered that I also had transverse myelitis."
Doctors believe Sharron's condition was a secondary result of Covid, which she had in May 2022.
Sharron explains the spine has a protective sheet over it and once this is damaged or destroyed by a virus, the signals from your nerves don't go through to your brain any more, which can cause paralysis.
Once properly diagnosed, the mother-of-two was given steroids and a blood transfusion, and quickly noticed a remarkable difference in her condition.
"Within three days of treatment, I started to get movement back! On Christmas Eve, I took my first three aided steps, which was amazing."
Sharron, who lost her job due to long stints in hospital, believes if it wasn't for the other patient she may never have been accurately diagnosed.
"I would've been paralysed for years and not had any treatment," says Sharron.
"I call the other patient my saviour!"
While some of her nerves have repaired, Sharron still has numbness in her legs and feet, and relies on a walker as she rebuilds her muscles.
"Having the independence to take myself to the toilet again was a really big thing," she enthuses.
"The doctors don't know if I'll completely recover, but I'm hoping in time I'll get my full mobility back. I like to think I will."
  • undefined: Cloe Willetts (1)

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