Medical Mystery or Hoax: Did Cheerleader Fake a Muscle Disorder?
Desiree Jennings claims after flu shot, she lost the ability to walk, speak.
July 23, 2010— -- Desiree Jennings was living a dream come true. The 25-year-old had a marketing job at a major company, was married to a handsome, successful man, and had challenging hobbies: she was an avid runner, and a cheerleading ambassador for the Washington Redskins football team.
But almost overnight Jennings went from the picture of happiness and health, to a twisted, stuttering vision of pain and suffering.
After a routine flu shot last fall, Jennings said she began experiencing fever and painful body aches. The symptoms quickly progressed until she could only walk with a twisted, halting gait, and had trouble reading, doing simple math -- even remembering things. Her condition put a halt on her once-frenetic lifestyle.
"I want to work, I want to be doing something," she said. "But who's going to hire somebody who can't remember what they did the day before?"
Jennings developed another odd symptom -- a strange foreign accent; the Midwestern woman suddenly sounded British. "It sounds like an accent, but it's not. I just can't pronounce words anymore," she said.
But perhaps worse of all is what happens when Jennings tried to recall specific memories. In her "20/20" interview, Jennings' speech devolved to stuttering, then complete gibberish.
"The mind keeps bouncing and it won't stay on that memory," she explained. "It gets garbled up on a bad hard drive so to speak."
In search of a cure, Jennings and her husband Brendan visited countless doctors and four hospitals, among them Johns Hopkins Hospital. There, a physical therapist told Jennings about dystonia, a rare movement disorder that causes the muscles to twitch or convulse involuntary. The symptoms resembled her own.
Jennings looked online and saw that in some cases, people with dystonia, who have trouble walking forward like she did, can walk backwards. Even more exciting for the devoted jogger was that a medical website said some sufferers can run.
"Within five minutes of seeing it on the website, she had her running shoes on," Brendan recalled.
Miraculously, Jennings could run. She also found out she could walk backwards, and even sideways, and that while doing so, her speech returned to normal.
"It's the strangest thing," she said. "As soon as you try to get into a running motion, you feel the whole body correcting itself."
It wasn't long before Jennings became a media sensation. Video of the beautiful young cheerleader, flopping about and stuttering one moment, running and talking normally the next, went viral. At once, she became the poster child of the anti-vaccine movement and a global Internet joke. YouTube comics garnered millions of hits setting her jerky movements to rap music.