Canadian woman paralyzed by rare illness while visiting Greece

by on 16 May 2018

A 35-year-old mother of two who travelled to Greece for an international martial arts convention is now paralyzed in an Athens hospital, suffering from the severe effects of a rare auto-immune disorder.

Melanie Bergeron McAndrew of Gatineau, Que., travelled to Greece May 1 and spent the first few days there working out and taking in the sights with her teammates. She looks to be the picture of health in photos showing her visiting tourist sites and training in Greece.

“Three days we walked Greece. We did a lot of dancing, we had fun. We trained for three days, five hours a day,” Bergeron McAndrew’s karate instructor Mike Leclair told CTV Ottawa.

He said Bergeron McAndrew was training hard, as she always does.

“It was just normal for us, sore legs, sore arms, sore shoulders, so it’s just normal pain. But it kept getting worse and worse with Melanie.”

He says she was “shutting down” slowly, getting weaker and fighting increasing pain.

“I was carrying her around like she was a rag doll.”

Her health became critical while on a cruise of the Greek islands and she was taken to hospital where doctors diagnosed her with Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS), a condition in which the body attacks the nervous system. The devastating diagnosis came May 8, Bergeron McAndrew’s 35th birthday.

“The news was not good. She was totally paralyzed and could not speak,” said Carole Quenneville, the woman’s step-mother. “Her condition is not improving, that’s why we’re very worried.”

Leclair and the other 16 teammates on the trip were forced to return home, leaving the sick woman on her own.

“I wouldn’t want to be alone. I wanted to stay, we all wanted to stay, but we couldn’t. We were pushed out of the hospital. (They said) ‘You can’t stay. You’re not immediate family,’” he said.

Her friends quickly launched a crowdfunding campaign to send her mother Lucie Bergeron to Athens to be with her daughter. She got there on Mother’s Day.

Her family back home is holding their breath, said Quenneville.

“It’s minute by minute, day by day. We’re just hoping for good news.”

The immediate focus is getting Bergeron-McAndrew well enough to fly home to be reunited with her two young daughters.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), in severe cases GBS can lead to paralysis and can be life-threatening by interfering with breathing, heart rate and blood pressure. A cause is not known and there is no cure. But there are therapies that greatly lessen the severity of the illness and accelerate recovery in most patients.

While most patients have good recovery from even the most severe cases, it can take months or years. About 30 per cent are left with some residual weakness three years later.

GBS can affect anybody and strike at any age, according to NINDS. It is rare, afflicting only about one person in 100,000.

“Melanie has a heart of gold, she has devoted herself body and soul to many causes in her life and always thinks of others before herself. She is a woman, a woman full of energy, devoted and very strong,” reads the Go Fund Me page written by friend Grace Sills that is now raising money for the family’s expenses.

-With a report from CTV Ottawa’s Catherine Lathem