It is a fact of life that, no matter how good you become at something, there will always be someone who is better than you. 
During my time at school that person was… let’s call him Matthew F. No wait, that’s too obvious… let’s say M. Fisher. He was always the best sportsman around, dominating any athletic event you could mention. He was even picked for the school football team ahead of me, though his dad did select the team (there is, of course, no lingering resentment on my part…). In any event, this young man personified Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”, at least when compared to myself.

In 2007 I was packing up and shipping off to university; Matt, on the other hand, was a professional triathlete and Olympic hopeful representing Great Britain in events all around the world. After retiring from athletics, he turned his focus to weightlifting and worked as a bouncer for 3 years. I don’t doubt that many considered him something of an Adonis; a man of Herculean proportion. However, in January of this year his life was thrown into turmoil when he was struck down with Transverse Myelitis.

Transverse Myelitis is a rare neurological disorder, similar to Multiple Sclerosis, caused by inflammation of the spinal cord. The inflammation can damage or destroy myelin, the fatty substance that covers nerve fibres, causing nervous system scars that interrupt communications between the nerves in the spinal cord and the rest of the body. Symptoms include a loss of spinal cord function over a period of several hours to several weeks. It usually manifests initially as back pain or abnormal sensations in the feet and can quickly progress to more severe symptoms, including paralysis. The condition is rare, with less than 300 cases being diagnosed in the UK each year. The average GP will see a case of Transverse Myelitis only once every 100 years.

For Matt it started with a tingling sensation in his foot which, like most of us would, he shrugged off. However within a couple of hours the tingling sensation he considered unimportant had rapidly progressed to complete numbness in both legs and his right arm. Doctors had no idea what could be wrong, having conducted virtually every test and ruled everything out, and he was left in irrepressible pain for 6 weeks before finally being diagnosed with Transverse Myelitis. Whatever positive that could have been taken from finally receiving a diagnosis was outweighed by the fact that he had to come to terms with the severity of his condition. In addition, the fact that it had taken 6 weeks to receive a diagnosis meant his prognosis was automatically less positive as the longer the inflammation is left, the more damage which is done to the Central Nervous System.

As there is no cure for Transverse Myelitis, the only treatment was to administer steroids to reduce the inflammation and begin physiotherapy to start his recovery. There is a timeframe of 2 years, after which no person suffering from Transverse Myelitis has shown further recovery, which made it necessary for him to begin his recuperation as soon as possible.
With treatment, his nerves began to reawaken, though because they had suffered extensive damage the signals they received were misinterpreted as pain and led to uncontrollable movement. Over a period of months Matt began to recover further, however his left leg remained totally uncontrollable which led to him having to have a phone handy at all times in case he fell and seriously hurt himself. He did fall (a lot…) but he always managed to pick himself back up.

After 6 months of continuous improvement, Matt was feeling positive – 30% of sufferers make no discernible recovery. Tragically, however, he suffered a rare relapse and was sent straight back to square one. Today he gets around in a wheelchair or with the use of walking sticks. Doctors have told him that it’s impossible to predict whether he’ll have any more relapses, and that he is at the mercy of the condition. Despite this, Matt is determined to make use of his remaining recovery window and not let the chance of further relapses prevent him from recovering as fully as possible.

Matt’s condition has truly opened my eyes to how fragile the human body can be, and how nobody (not even those in superb physical condition) is immune to the curveballs which life can throw at us. He has proved the indomitability of the human spirit in his tireless efforts on the road to recovery. It is people such as him who remind the rest of us that we should not take anything for granted and should make the most of every day, as we never know what could be lurking around the corner.

I would like to thank Matt for speaking to me about his condition and allowing me to write this article. In doing so I hope to have raised awareness of Transverse Myelitis so, in future, more people might recognise the symptoms and potentially prevent delayed diagnoses, allowing more extensive recovery.


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