A 24-year-old woman said she’ll never touch a stray cat again after a chance encounter with a feline in Portugal allegedly left her paralyzed by a rare bacteria. Gemma Birch, of the U.K., said her trouble began on her last day of a 2014 trip, when she began vomiting and felt faint.
Birch told MDW Features that when she landed back home she went immediately to Southport Hospital, where doctors allegedly detected campylobacter in her stool. While the bacteria is one of the most common causes of food poisoning, it is typically linked to raw or undercooked poultry, unpasteurized milk and contaminated water.
Because Birch is a pescatarian (eats fish, but no other meat), her doctors asked if she had any contact with stray animals, which is when it was linked to the cat, which she had named “Catarina.”
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), campylobacter can live in both humans and animals, including poultry, cattle, pigs, sheep, ostriches and pets. Campylobacteriosis is a disease transmitted to humans from animals.
“I was in hospital for a week on a drip as I was very dehydrated,” Birch told MDW Features. “It was a severe food poisoning reaction, but I was infected from the cat. It’s assumed the cat rummaged through the bins and I picked up the infection that way.”
While Birch was eventually released from the hospital, her ordeal was far from over. Birch’s symptoms were worsening as a result of a secondary illness that she had developed, Guillain-Barre syndrome. According to the NHS, food poisoning is an infection known to trigger the condition, which damages the nerves and causes numbness, weakness and even paralysis.
One night, Birch said she couldn’t feel the carpet beneath her legs, and that she felt nothing when she scratched them.
“I screamed for my dad and he carried me to the car, and we went straight to Southport Hospital,” she told MDW Features. “While in the waiting area, I googled food poisoning, numbness, weakness and GBS came up. I showed my dad and we know it was that. The doctors in the hospital agreed, and tests proved I had it.”
Birch said that at the height of her symptoms, she lost control over her bowels and was completely reliant on help from others. She was hospitalized for three weeks before moving to a rehabilitation center for three months, where she was reportedly told she had nerve damage from the syndrome.
“I was properly recovered around 14 months after going into hospital,” she told MDW Features. “Whenever I have an infection or injury, it affects my nerves and tingling sensations, numbness and weakness occur.”
Birch said she was able to keep up with her studies once she came to terms with her diagnosis, and graduated from her university on time with her twin sister.