AURORA, Colo. (CBS4) – A young mother from Lakewood is recovering from a rare, debilitating condition that nearly killed her. It was acute flaccid myelitis or AFM, the same polio-like illness that mostly affects children, leaving some with paralysis.
In 2018, Colorado had the second highest number of AFM cases in the country. That may be because doctors and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) have become very good at identifying AFM.
CDPHE reports there were 17 cases of AFM in Colorado in 2018. One was Emily West, a mother of two, who is grateful she survived.
“You’re much stronger than before,” said Dr. William Niehaus to Emily.
Niehaus is a specialist in neurorehabilitation at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital.
Emily is a wonder. She is Niehaus’ poster child for rehabilitation. When the 33-year-old came to him in September, she was extremely weak.
“She’s made huge progress,” Niehaus said.
Emily, a wife and mother, survived the rare polio-like condition, AFM. It started in August 2018, with cold symptoms. Then she had severe pain in her feet, back and head.
“I started not being able to walk and talk or even stay awake,” Emily told CBS 4 Health specialist Kathy Walsh. “Eventually, (I was) not able to swallow or anything.”
MRI scans showed inflammation in both her brain and her spinal cord.
“It almost looks like a molar tooth outline,” said Dr. Daniel Pastula pointing to the MRI of Emily’s spine.
Pastula is a neuroinfectious disease physician at University of Colorado Hospital and an expert on AFM. He saw telltale signs of the condition on Emily’s scans.
“She was critically ill,” he said.
Emily was in medical intensive care, in a coma and on a breathing machine. Pastula said her AFM was caused by an enterovirus that got into her central nervous system because her immune system was weakened from a medication she took for rheumatoid arthritis.
“I had a lot of delusions and hallucinations,” said Emily. “It was really scary.”
There is usually no treatment for AFM, but donated antibodies helped Emily fight the illness.
“I definitely am thankful,” she said.
Now, five months after getting sick, Emily is looking to the future with her family and putting her ordeal behind her.
“It’s almost a dream and I’m glad it’s over and it had a happy ending,” said Emily.
The chances of getting AFM are about one in a million. In fact, people infected with an enterovirus usually have mild illnesses, or no symptoms at all, and recover completely. To avoid the risk, Pastula said, wash your hands.