Gemma Flanagan lived a life that many would envy. Travelling all over the world, partying in some exciting cities and getting paid it!
Gemma was a member of BA’s cabin crew until 2011 when her life changed forever.
Within a week of starting to notice slight tingling, Gemma ended up in hospital completely paralysed, where she stayed for almost a year. Gemma had been struck down by Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS)*1, a condition that affects only 1 in 100,000 people.
I met Gemma last year when Angel Sinclair invited me to provide clothes for her Models of Diversity Catwalk Show in Shepherds Bush Market.
In this 2-part interview you can learn about Gemma her amazing courage and positive attitude. In this part we talk about her illness and recovery. In part 2 we will discuss the amazing work that Models of Diversity Does and how you can help.
CH Hi Gemma can you please introduce yourself and your current role, plus your really exciting news!
GF: Hi I’m Gemma Flanagan I’m the Assistant Director of Disability for Models of Diversity. When I’m not campaigning for Models of Diversity (MOD) I am a fashion model, but this is also an extension of my role for MOD.
I’m so excited that I got engaged at Christmas!! We went to look at our first wedding venue last night and it made me realize just how real it is now!! We are just celebrating our fourth anniversary.
CH: Your life changed forever in 2011 – what happened?
GF: I was on a stopover in Vegas and realized that I wasn’t feeling quite right.
My feet started to feel strange. I had pins and needles and my legs felt heavy – Sounds daft but I put it down to the 6” heels I’d been partying in!
On the return flight I felt really tired and thought I’d been overdoing things. I was due to report for my next flight to Nairobi 2 days later.
I made it out of the door and on to the street (in full uniform!) only to collapse in the street. I struggled to get up. The weird thing was that I was in no pain. I just couldn’t walk.
CH: Presumably you didn’t make the flight to Kenya?
GF: Hardly! My flatmate took me to a WalkIn Clinic – not surprisingly they were really unsure what to do with me! So I ended up in A&E and was admitted to hospital for tests.
It was then that things started to get a bit scary as they mentioned stroke, meningitis and tropical diseases as possible causes for my symptoms.
The doctors confirmed the diagnosis as GBS* after a lumbar puncture.
From that point things deteriorated really quickly – within a week of being admitted to hospital I’d lost my swallowing reflex and was totally paralyzed. I was literally trapped within my own body.
CH: How frightening it must have been to go from being an able bodied person to being completely paralyzed?
GF: The doctors kept telling me that it was a mild case and I was really calm.
However, I did get a bit hysterical when I’d been in hospital for 4 days and a friend who was visiting asked what was wrong with my face.
My face had totally dropped on one side. It sounds so vain but that was the point I got a bit upset!
I was moved to Intensive Care (ICU) for two weeks, when the paralysis kicked in. This was despite the fact that I still didn’t think I was ill enough to warrant being there!!
After 2 months it stopped deteriorating and I was transferred to Liverpool. In January 2012 I entered rehabilitation.
CH: What did the rehabilitation involve?
GF: It was tough with 6 hours per day of therapy.
As the nerves start to recover they become hypersensitive. This involves a burning sensation so intense it’s like an electric shock you can’t move away from. I was in a lot of pain and trying to cope with this and 6 hours of therapy per day was not easy.
I had to learn to swallow, talk, write and partly walk again. Not exactly what I’d planned to be doing aged 27! I was in rehabilitation for 7 months.
I left the amazing Walton Neuro Centre on crutches and was told that it was highly likely I’d make a full recovery. I missed the bit where they said it would take time!
CH: At what point did you realise that life was never going back to the way it had been and how did that make you feel?
GF: For 18 months after leaving hospital I refused to use a wheelchair. I believed that I would get better if I kept pushing myself.
Unfortunately I was my own worst enemy and have irreparably damaged my spine and skeletal system. It means that I now need to use a wheelchair full time.
Over the last 2 years the doctors have been telling me that I’m not going to get better. It took me another year to accept the fact, so it’s been a long time.
Last summer I went through a grieving process as I came to terms with the changes in my body.
But I’m one of the lucky ones! Not everyone survives GBS!
CH: You are now diverting your energy into an incredibly worthwhile cause can you tell us a bit about that and how you became involved?
GF: I needed a purpose in life and have been lucky that I’ve found that with Models of Diversity (MOD)
Since meeting Angel Sinclair in 2012 I have been an ambassador for MOD and recently been promoted to Assistant Director of Disability.
I have so much to thank Angel for as she helped me realize I could be glamorous and get back in front of the camera. It had an amazing effect on my self-confidence and self-esteem.
As a model Angel realized that in order for changes to be instigated someone needed to start raising awareness. Angel founded MOD in 2008 and has been campaigning for change ever since.
In Part 2 of my interview with Gemma we explore Models of Diversity and their tireless efforts to campaign for change in the fashion, beauty and media industries. We will look at the Petition they launched at the Houses of Parliament in September and the race to get as many signatures as possible before March 23rd.
*1 Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS)
GBS is a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system. The peripheral nervous system is found in the feet and other extremities of the body.
GBS can affect anybody. It can strike at any age and both sexes are equally prone to the disorder. The syndrome is rare, and only about 1 in 100,000 people are affected.
No one yet knows what causes GBS or sets it in motion. What scientists do know is that the body’s immune system begins to attack the body itself, causing what is known as an autoimmune disease. It can spread to the body’s organs and that’s when fatalities can occur.
The disorder mutates differently in each case which makes it difficult to diagnose and treat. Some sufferers make a full recovery, others like Gemma are left managing pain and suffering mobility issues for the rest of their lives.