Within days of developing a viral infection following a routine ear piercing, a 15-year-old British dancer lay paralyzed in a hospital bed, unable to move or communicate except by blinking her eyes at her devastated mother. Her diagnosis: Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare and potentially deadly immune disorder that attacks the nervous system.
Doctors at Evelina Children's Hospital in London said that Grace Etherington might
remain motionless for the rest of her life, dependent on a ventilator for every breath.
"It was a fate worse than death. She would be trapped in a lifeless shell," her mother, Sharon Etherington, 41, of Sittingbourne, Kent, told The Daily Mail.
"I wanted to tell mum I loved her and I could only do it by blinking," the now-healthy teen told the newspaper. "Being stuck in my body was horrible."
Grace defied the dire predictions rendered last November, the British newspaper reported. She took her first steps in December and by March, intensive physical therapy had her walking again. In May, she achieved her dream of dancing with her troupe in London. With the exception of some ongoing fatigue, she has recovered completely.
Grace's story is exceptional on many levels. Through an obscure route, this young, otherwise healthy young woman contracted a rare disease affecting one in 100,000 people worldwide. Guillain-Barre can affect anyone at any age; about two-thirds of cases originate in the immune system. But Dr. Kenneth C. Gorson, a neurology professor at Tufts University School of Medicine and neuromuscular specialist at St. Elizabeth's Medical Center in Boston, said Wednesday he'd never heard of a case triggered as hers apparently was.
"This would be an extraordinarily unusual complication of ear piercing and a skin infection causing Guillain-Barre syndrome," Gorson said.
Doctors unfamiliar with the disorder would have been unlikely to suspect Guillain-Barre when Grace first showed symptoms. Veteran neurologists would likely have seen her illness taking a fast, familiar course. A few days after the ear piercing, Grace developed a viral ear infection. According to what her mother told the newspaper, a doctor dismissed the tingling in her toes as nothing. But Guillain-Barre typically begins with weakness or tingling in the feet or hands.
When Grace began to experience difficulty walking a few days later, her mother took her to a nearby hospital. During her overnight evaluation, Grace stopped being able to move her legs, the Mail reported. Then one side of her face became numb. Next, she began choking, so doctors placed her on a ventilator to regulate her breathing after muscles of her diaphragm became paralyzed. About 20 percent to 30 percent of adults will end up on a ventilator, Gorson said, and the pattern in a teenager would hew more closely to what happens in an adult than a child.