Ann Wheeler was left seriously ill after a rare condition left her days away from becoming paralysed.
The 57-year-old was told she was just days away from losing the use of her legs, after being diagnosed with a rare spinal condition – cauda equina syndrome, which occurs when the bundle of nerves at the base of the spine – the cuada equina, or horse’s tail – are damaged.
Ann faced months of pain and major surgery, but is now climbing mountains and swimming across lakes to help raise money for other people with similar illnesses.
“I don’t think I’m doing anything special,” said Ann, “I just want to help people with spinal problems.”
Ann, who lives in Clayton-le-Woods, near Chorley, said she had suffered with a bad back for a couple of years.
She said: “I kept going to the doctors and saying I can’t bend, and they were treating me for sciatica.
“I was getting worse and worse. It was going on for about a year. I was beginning to drag my legs, people were laughing at me saying I’m drunk again.
“I went on holiday to Fuerteventura, I was walking back and my bowel just opened up in the street.
“I thought there was something seriously wrong and they flew me back.”
Ann returned to the UK and went back to work, but said she got “worse and worse” and went to the doctors three times in the week.
She said: “With the third doctor, I just broke down.
“I told him the real symptoms, I was hiding the fact my bowel and bladder had gone because I was embarrassed, I thought it was just old age.
“I crawled in, he said I’m phoning the hospital now, you’ve got to go straight away.”
But Ann put off the hospital visit, going to a dental appointment instead.
She said: “I was trying to convince myself I wasn’t ill.”
When she went to hospital, medics discovered Ann was paralysed in her bowel and bladder. She was sent home, and told she would hear from doctors a few days later.
She said: “I couldn’t work, I could hardly walk, I was worried sick.”
Ann was given an MRI scan. She said: “They said you are very, very ill.
“I said ‘What’s wrong, is it cancer?’ and they said you’ve got cauda equina.
“It’s a spinal condition which is serious – of course I had to get the serious one.
“I just broke down, I said what does this mean, and they said we’ve got to operate on your spine.”
Ann initially refused the surgery, fearing it may go wrong. But she said: “They said you’ve got no option, if we don’t operate you’ll be paralysed within days.
“So I think within five days they operated – they brought it forward because I was very, very ill.”
Ann’s operation took five hours, and she said: “I remember waking up, I was as lively as anything.
“But my legs were killing me, and they said that was a good sign. But the next morning I just went downhill.
“I don’t know what it was, a nurse tried to get me out of bed. I said I don’t feel very well and she said you’ve got to use your legs. They picked me up, and the next minute I was on the floor.
“I’ve never been so popular in my life, staff were all around me, all I remember was waking up and a doctor checking my heart.
“I had been sick everywhere.”
But Ann was determined not to give up and not to have to use a wheelchair, and went home within three days of her operation.
She said: “I could hardly walk at all, but now I’m walking miles. I would have been paralysed within days, but I wasn’t in the end, I was very, very lucky. It’s one of those things, not many people recover from it.”
Ann, a keen swimmer, has swum Coniston and Windermere, to raise money for people with spinal conditions.
She said: “Windermere is 10-and-a-half miles.
“10 hours later I came out the other end. Everybody just cheered me because they said they didn’t think I would do it.
“But I just do it for a challenge and to help people. I’m helping other people with spinal problems not to give up, because they think if you’ve got spinal problems you sit and do nothing but you don’t. I’m in and out of hospital, I’m in pain every single day.”
Ann is now part of a walking group, and has climbed more than 100 mountains since April last year.
She said: “At first I nearly gave up.
“I had good days and bad days and I pushed myself too much once and my legs had gone.
“It was horrible, but I got strong again and swimming keeps me okay.
“I’ve set my mind I want to do 214 Wainwrights this year.
“I don’t think I’m doing anything special, I just want to help people with spinal problems.
“I wouldn’t wish cauda equina on anybody.
“I’ll be in pain forever.”
She added: “It could come back, I know that.
“I know the symptoms, I know one of my legs is weakening and I sometimes drag my leg. But at the moment it’s working.
“I’m just not giving in.”