Woman suffers rare paralysis after flu shot
A Sarnia woman who suffered a rare reaction to a flu shot is recovering from temporary paralysis from the waist down.
Teresa Valenti, 42, developed Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS) after receiving the vaccination, and was told only one person in a million experiences that kind of side-effect.
Valenti said she doesn’t want to scare anyone away from flu vaccines but she thinks it’s important people know the risks before they get the shot.
Valenti said she had never heard of GBS when she went with her husband and two sons for a flu shot before taking a trip to the Caribbean in March.
It seemed like a good precaution so no one would get sick while on holiday, she said.
“Besides, I had the flu shot in previous years without any side effects.”
No one was ill during the trip. The family returned home healthy and rested. But two days later and exactly three weeks after receiving her flu shot, a sensation of pins and needles developed in one of her feet.
The next day, the other foot began tingling. When the sensation began moving up her leg and weakness set in, Valenti started tripping over her own feet.
A doctor at a local walk-in clinic suspected diabetes or a B-12 deficiency and ordered blood tests but, before she could get them, her arm became limp.
“My husband immediately took me to emergency where I saw a doctor right away,” she said. “I started to think I picked (a virus) up on our trip but my blood work came back normal.”
An alert emergency physician asked if Valenti had received a flu shot recently.
“He pinpointed it right there. He said he thought I had Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS).”
GBS is an autoimmune disorder that affects the peripheral nerves found outside the brain and spinal cord. It generally starts with the feet and moves upward. If there’s no early intervention, GBS will often paralyze the entire body and patients will require breathing assistance.
Valenti was admitted into cardiac care at Blue Water Health in case her upper body became affected.
That afternoon, five days after returning from the Caribbean, she lost all sensation from her waist down. Several tests including a lumbar puncture and an MRI confirmed it was Guillain-Barre Syndrome.
“I was so afraid to go to sleep because I thought I would wake up completely paralyzed,” Valenti said. “It was terrifying.”
But doctors said she was lucky. Early detection and treatment would stop the paralysis from moving upward and begin to reverse it.
“My family and I were scared. It was shocking for someone as active and outgoing as I am to be suddenly incapacitated,” Valenti said.
Doctors continued to assure her that her prognosis was excellent. After a week in the hospital and several days of treatment to stop the immune system from attacking her nerves, the GBS remained limited to her lower half.
Valenti was sent home still paralyzed. A nurse came daily to administer an intravenous steroid. After two weeks, she managed a few steps with a walker.
It took two months before she could take small walks. Physiotherapy has been exhausting, Valenti said, and severe pain set in once sensation returned.
“I’d be stinging, then burning, then freezing. My nerves were damaged and inflamed. It was terrible,” she said.
Medication finally controlled the pain and Valenti continues to improve. She’s been off work for six months but hopes to return soon.
“I still have several toes with a tingling sensation and my left leg is still weak, but I’m very lucky. Some people become quadriplegic.”
Doctors say they expect a full recovery by the end of a year.
“I’m not telling this story to scare people but to inform them,” she said. “I think people who want to get vaccinated should ask about the side effects and the risks before they make their decision.”
The other three members of the Valenti family did not suffer any side effects from the flu shot.
However, she said she and her family will never get the flu shot again.
GBS cases generally occur after such seemingly unrelated events as surgery, insect stings and various injections. Many cases occurred in the winter of 1976-77 in people who received the swine flu vaccine, according to the GBS Foundation International.
About 98 per cent of those who get it will survive and most recover fully.
“Like everything else, there’s always some amount of risk in everything we do,” says Vicki Hawksworth, Lambton County’ supervisor of environmental health and prevention.
“Normally, what we see from the flu shot is a sore arm and maybe you don’t feel well for a day or two.
“GBS is extremely rare.”
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